MIT Report: Both Irrelevant and Smart on Grid Issues

By Kennedy Maize

Washington DC, December 6, 2011—The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has rolled out the latest, and fifth, of its Future Of series of studies of U.S. energy policy, this one focused on the interstate electric transmission grid. The massive transmission tome contains little that’s new to anyone who has followed this subject.

Included in the MIT report is the predictable recommendation that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission have the same ability to override state governments in siting interstate electric lines as it has for interstate natural gas pipeline. As anyone who has followed this issue is likely to believe, this isn’t going to happen. Congress stepped up to the policy plate in 2005 and hit a foul ball: the transmission provisions in the now irrelevant 2005 Energy Policy Act.

Congress was unwilling – politically unable – to assert national interest in the face of local objections; it has not become more courageous or nationally-focused since then. So forget about making it easier to site large, interstate electric transmission lines, regardless of whether that serves the nation’s interest in an interconnected, reliable grid, including a grid that is able to integrate large amounts of new renewable energy generated in areas remote from where it will be used.

The MIT report also calls for a “single agency” to act as a cybersecurity czar. This is also a predictable recommendation, one that strikes me as dangerous and also unlikely. My anxieties about single, overreaching agencies come from the experiences we have had in the past. It strikes me – a point I make in my soon-to-be-published book “Too Dumb to Meter, Follies, Fiascoes, Dead Ends and Duds on the U.S. Road to Atomic Energy” – that recreating the Atomic Energy Commission is a prescription for boondoggles, bureaucratic posturing, feckless research and development, and wasted taxpayer dollars. There’s a lot of evidence for this fear, the latest being the Department of Homeland Security.

While there is much that is worth having on the record in the latest MIT tome – which is also the case for MIT’s earlier work – not much in it will have a tangible, traceable impact. At least it kept some academics employed and some graybeards and has-beens connected.

But there is one area where I think the MIT transmission report is salutary (although it doubt if it will have a lasting impact). That is the section of the report that deals with the misleading term “smart grid.” This nomenclature has always bothered me, and I have argued repeatedly that my preference is for a strong grid rather than a smart grid. I’ve argued that, when it comes to the national high-voltage, long-distance grid, muscles are more important than brains. The “smart grid” moniker apparently was created at EPRI and has always smacked more of salesmanship than conveying clear ideas. In short, “smart grid” in my mind has always been a propaganda term, along with similar exercises in energy propaganda such as “green energy” and “green jobs.”

MIT seems to agree. Noting that much of the so-called smart grid is outside of its purview, as it deals with the localized distribution grid more than the interconnected interstate network, MIT nonetheless has words of wisdom regarding terminology (at page 20 of the report): “Because the term ‘smart grid’ means different things to different people and because its meanings are evolving, we have avoided reliance on the term in this report. We have focused instead on the broad goal of making the grid of the future more resilient, secure, efficient and reliable amid a variety of emerging challenges and, perhaps, to enable the provision of desirable new services. Seizing the opportunities related to recent or anticipated technical innovations can further these goals.” Amen.

I’ll be dealing more with the MIT study in the March-April edition of MANAGING POWER (