National Geographic : 2010 Jul
smart appliances to operate only when solar or wind power is available. Some countries, such as Italy and Sweden, are ahead of the U.S. in upgrading their electrical intelligence. e Boulder project went online earlier this year, but only about 10 percent of U.S. customers have even the most primitive of smart meters, Hauser estimates. "It's expensive," he says. "Utilities are used to spending 40 bucks on an old mechanical meter that's got spinning dials. A smart meter with a so ware chip, plus the wireless communication, might cost $200--- ve times as much. For utili- ties, that's huge." e Boulder project has cost Xcel Energy nearly three times what it expected. Earlier this year the utility raised rates to try to recoup some of those costs. ALTHOUGH EVERYONE ACKNOWLEDGES the need for a better, smarter, cleaner grid, the paramount goal of the utility industry continues to be cheap electricity. In the U.S. about half of it comes from burning coal. Coal-powered generators produce a third of the mercury emissions in America, a third of our smog, two-thirds of our sulfur dioxide, and nearly a third of our planet-warming carbon dioxide---around 2.5 billion metric tons a year, by the most recent estimate. Not counting hydroelectric plants, only about 3 percent of American electricity comes from renewable energy. e main reason is that coal- red electricity costs a few cents a kilowatt-hour, and renewables cost substantially more. Gener- ally they're competitive only with the help of government regulations or tax incentives. Util- ity executives are a conservative bunch. eir job is to keep the lights on. Radical change makes them nervous; things they can't control, such as government policies, make them ner- vous. " ey tend to like stable environments," says Ted Craver, head of Edison International, a utility conglomerate, "because they tend to make very large capital investments and eat that cooking for 30 or 40 or 50 years." So windmills worry them. A utility exec- utive might look at one and think: What if the wind doesn't blow? Or look at solar panels and think: What if it gets cloudy? A smart grid alone can't solve the intermittence problem. e ultimate solution is nding ways to store large LONG DISTANCE, HIGH VOLTAGE POWER LINES. Superconducting cables at the Long Island Power Authority were turned on in 2008. They can move two to five times as much power as conventional cables of the same size, freeing valuable space in crowded transmission corridors and postponing or eliminating the need to upgrade transmis- sion systems for higher voltages.