Editorial: A smart idea (Brattleboro Reformer)

Vermont’s utilities recently joined forces with Efficiency Vermont and Vermont Electric Power Co., to apply for a $66 million federal stimulus grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to upgrade the state’s electricity grid.

The state’s 20 electric distribution utilities have already been working on what’s called "smart grid" technology. However, they believe that with a little seed money from the feds, it could be done quicker and in a more coordinated fashion.

With new metering systems and automation technology, smart grid technology would help consumers adjust their energy use -- depending on the time and cost of the electricity -- and lower power bills.

For a smart grid to work best, the power companies would have to switch to a new rate structure that reflects the varying cost of power throughout the day. But the utilities would also benefit by reducing the need for new transmission lines to carry peak loads.

The total price tag for smart grid would be about $133 million, with the $66 million grant covering about half the cost.

According to state stimulus czar Tom Evslin, if Vermont could get its share of the $3.4 billion pot of stimulus money available for projects like this, the state could have this technology five years sooner than it would otherwise.

But the best news about smart grid is that it would be built on a statewide fiber optic network planned by the Vermont Electric Power Co.

VELCO fiber optic line is being extended to each of the state’s 270 utility substations, and it is being built whether or not the stimulus money arrives. By building out that network. it’s possible to piggyback expanded broadband Internet service to points all over the state.

Vermont has a good shot at seeing this money, thanks to the seniority and clout of our congressional delegation. Sen. Patrick Leahy is second in seniority on the most powerful committee in Congress -- the Appropriations Committee. Sen. Bernard Sanders is the ranking member of the "green jobs" subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. And Rep. Peter Welch sits on the House Energy Committee and has been a leader on renewable energy and new technology issues.

Between the cooperation of the state’s energy companies and the perfect positioning of our delegation in Washington, Vermont has a very good chance to access the stimulus money and become a model for other states to follow.

Not only could a statewide smart grid in Vermont show others how to create a system of energy efficiency at every stage of the grid, from the power plant to the home, but we could also serve as a model for expanding broadband Internet in rural areas.

Having both a smart electrical grid and more fiber optic lines for broadband would also make a huge difference to the state’s economy. The $66 million grant would be the difference between Vermont benefiting from being an early adopter of an important new wave of technology, or Vermont lagging behind the rest of the nation and suffering economically as a result.