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Obama to detail stimulus spending on 'smart grid'

A $3.4-billion chunk will go toward grants to modernize the U.S. power system to more easily use renewable resources. The president will speak at a solar facility in Arcadia, Fla.

October 27, 2009|Jim Tankersley

WASHINGTON — President Obama and administration officials today will announce $3.4 billion in spending projects to modernize the nation's electric power system.

The president will offer details on funding for the "smart grid" during an appearance at a solar plant in Arcadia, Fla. White House officials said the projects would create tens of thousands of jobs in the near term and lay the groundwork for changing how Americans use and pay for energy.

The spending is aimed at improving the efficiency and reliability of the U.S. power supply, and helping to create markets for wind and solar power, officials said. They also said it would create "smart meters" to help consumers use electricity when demand is low and when rates are cheaper -- for example, by running dishwashers and other energy-thirsty appliances in the middle of the night.

The money will be released in the form of grants to applicants and must be matched dollar for dollar by private funding.

The clean-energy push comes as the administration is working to respond to a national unemployment rate hovering near double digits. Vice President Joe Biden today will announce the reopening of a former General Motors plant in Delaware to produce more efficient cars. And several Cabinet secretaries are scheduled to testify before a Senate panel in support of sweeping legislation to curb emissions that contribute to global warming and to encourage renewable energy development.

The president's announcement comes after comments last week by a key Obama economic advisor, Christina Romer, who said the economic gains from the administration's signature $787-billion stimulus plan had probably peaked.

Speaking at a congressional hearing, Romer -- who leads the president's Council of Economic Advisors -- said that by the middle of next year, the stimulus would "likely be contributing little to further growth."

For months, critics have maintained that the stimulus package lacked punch and had failed to deliver a jolt to the economy. Hoping to ease such concerns, Obama has counseled patience, saying in July that the stimulus "was designed to work over two years."

The package included some $80 billion in clean-energy spending, including money to improve the efficiency of public buildings and to research new biofuels. Administration officials have not said how many jobs the money has created.

Today's spending announcement will involve the biggest chunk of clean-energy money yet. It is targeted at building the smart grid -- a phrase that includes efforts to make the nation's power delivery system less prone to blackouts, more in tune with consumer demand and more integrated with renewable energy.

A smarter grid, for example, might help hook wind farms in North Dakota with power consumers in Chicago and synchronize those consumers' energy use to match the times when the wind blows strongest.

"We have an electrical grid system that hasn't been always capable of moving cleanly produced electricity in different parts of the country to other parts of the country that most need it," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters on Air Force One.

"Places with either solar or wind aren't always the most populous areas of the country, and you've got to find a vehicle that's technologically capable of moving clean power to places where the demand is greatest," he said.

Advocates for smart-grid spending welcomed the planned Obama announcement.

"It's a jump-start," said Katherine Hamilton, president of the GridWise Alliance, a public-private partnership devoted to grid modernization. She said the projects supported by the stimulus funds would show industry and utility regulators that "this is going to work."

Federal and state regulators still must resolve issues of where to put power lines and how to price the energy that travels along them, among other regulatory challenges, said Deborah Wince-Smith, president of the Council on Competitiveness, which has urged the administration to make the smart grid a centerpiece of its clean-energy efforts.

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jtankersley@latimes.com

Peter Nicholas in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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