Focus Washington: CURRENT Group’s Jay Birnbaum, Smart Grid Stimulus Plan

Today, I talked with Jay Birnbaum, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of CURRENT Group LLC, on Smart Grid Technology and the stimulus plan. Jay and the CURRENT Group belive Smart Grid technology will bring the nation’s electriciy grids into teh digital age.

You can view the video or read the transcript below.

Additionally, CURRENT GROUP earned top billing and both CEO Tom Casey and Senior Vice President and General Counsel Jay Birnbaum are quoted in a Washington Post business story on Smart Grid. CURRENT believes Smart Grid will bring the nation’s electricity grids into the digital age, according to the Post.


Chuck Conconi: Welcome To Focus Washington, I’m Chuck Conconi. My guest today is Jay Birnbaum who is the senior vice president of CURRENT Group. Jay, thank you for being with me today.


Jay Birnbaum: Thank you for having me


Chuck Conconi: Great to have you. Earlier this year, the Obama administration set aside roughly 4 billion dollars in the economic stimulus bill for Smart Grid technology. I understand the department of energy recently issued its proposal criteria for Smart Grid energy projects. How is this money going to be used?


Jay Birnbaum: Well it’s going to be used for Smart Grid projects throughout the country. In particular the department of energy is engaging utilities to engage in projects that will create the most amount of jobs and the most amount of benefits for consumers in the shortest period of time particularly in the next two years.


Chuck Conconi: Well, CURRENT Group is a leader in this Smart Grid technology. You’ve done it in, I understand, Boulder, CO. You know what it takes to implement this technology, what is your assessment of the department of energy proposed criteria for putting Smart Grid to work across America?


Jay Birnbaum: I think they did a very good job. I mean, they had a tough task. They did it in a very short period of time. The stimulus package was only adopted about two months ago. And what DOE is focusing on is the criteria to enable a large number of utilities to get enough funding to stimulate a Smart Grid project that a particular utility wasn’t already going to be doing. So they’re trying to jump-start projects, not necessarily pay for them or largely subsidize them, but to get enough utilities to engage in deploying this new technology to upgrade our electricity grid. And that way they could create a momentum where the utilities would finish out the projects over time


Chuck Conconi: I’m going to ask you to be a little bit technical at this particular point.  Summarize the key provisions for the Department of energy’s proposed outlines for this.


Jay Birnbaum: Well the stimulus package actually broke down the Smart Grid funding into two separate groups. One group, one category if you will, has $615 million set aside for smart grid demonstration projects. The department have defined these as projects that are new, that are sort of novel technologies or novel applications of existing technologies.  And then there is a second category, which is much larger and which is almost $3.4 billion. That money is for commercial deployment of Smart Grid technologies, much like what we are already doing in Boulder and in other locations. Now the utilities would go and deploy previously deployed or previously existing commercial technology.


Chuck Conconi: Any problems you’ve noticed in the DOE proposed plans for this?


Jay Birnbaum: No problems necessarily. Again I think they did a very good job in trying to incorporate a lot of different utility visions of how to do Smart Grid. Their proposed criteria give utilities a lot of flexibility in types of projects they can propose.   One constraint is time. You have to have the money spent within two years or you can’t use it any longer. And another issue is benefits. The department is looking for projects that will create a large number of benefits, such as environmental benefits, job creation, reducing electricity costs, integrating renewable energy resources, and what is called distributive energy resources, likes the solar panels on your roof. So they are trying to incorporate a large number of different applications and that’s what the utility companies have to design their plans to fit within.


Chuck Conconi: You know I look at this figure, $4 billion. That’s a big investment. What are the taxpayers getting out of their money and what are the benefits of the Smart Grids?  How does this really work?


Jay Birnbaum: In general a Smart Grid is going to create efficiencies, security and reliability on the electricity grid. And it’s going to improve the electricity grids’ performance in all those areas. When we talk about a Smart grid it’s important to understand what a Smart Grid is because a lot of people talk about it. A Smart Grid is essentially putting sensors throughout the electricity grid and connecting that back to the utility with a high-speed communications system, and computing power to analyze what those sensors are saying and telling the utility what action to take in real time, or often enough in real time. So what we get from that is reduced electricity costs because now utility companies know how much energy they have to send down the wires and how much they actually are sending down the wires so they can actually modify the electricity they send. Utility companies sometimes send more then they need because there is no way to measure in real time how much energy is actually being sent to our homes. We can reduce losses. The electricity grid naturally has losses were electricity gets sent out but some of it comes off the wires before it reaches our homes. Utility companies can mitigate that loss or some of those losses with Smart Grid technology. And they can integrate these other technologies such as renewable and distributive energy technologies because without a Smart Grid some of these technologies become what some have called niche markets, that only a few of us will have them.


Chuck Conconi: You mean like solar and wind power. That kind of thing?


Jay Birnbaum: In particular the distributive energy resources but also centralized wind and solar because those resources tend to be intermittent. The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. And it’s not always predictable when it’s going to stop and start you have to have a system that can interact very quickly.


Chuck Conconi: So the investment is going to pay off the $4 billion.


Jay Birnbaum: Yes and again that is a jumpstart. It will cost more to deploy Smart Grid throughout the next decade or the next two decades because we going to keep inventing new ways of improve the operation of the grid. But the four billion dollars will get a number of utilities off to the races as far as deploying them


Chuck Conconi: Jay Birnbaum thank you for being here we’ll have to talk about this at another time. I’m Chuck Conconi and this has been Focus Washington

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