$200 million in stimulus funds flows to Georgia to update power grid

WASHINGTON -- More than $200 million in federal stimulus money is expected to flow into projects in Georgia as part of the Obama Administration's plans to upgrade the nation's aging electric grid.

The money, part of $3.4 billion in grants announced Tuesday by the White House, will be used for everything from upgrading computer equipment used to monitor and fix problems on power lines and substations to "smart" meters that will let consumers see exactly how much power they're using and how much they're paying for it.

In announcing more than 100 grants in nearly every state, the White House highlighted a $16.5 million grant to the Cobb Electric Membership Corp. that help will pay for 190,000 "smart" meters that will be deployed throughout its system in Marietta.

The meters promise to give consumers real-time information on their power consumption and costs and let them adjust their usage to off-peak hours to save money. The smart meters also will let the utility track problems and fix them remotely when possible.

"Right now if your power goes out, we don't necessarily know it," said Wanda Lee, associate vice president of engineering for Cobb EMC. "With these, the meter will call us and say, " ‘Hey, I don't have any power and you need to send someone out to find out what's going on.' "

Tens of millions more in Recovery Act grants will also go to upgrading power lines, transformers and computer systems that control Georgia's electric system.

Atlanta-based Southern Co. is slated to get $164.5 million in federal matching grants to upgrade monitoring and control systems across its power network throughout the Southeast.

The Municipal Electric Authority of Georgia in Atlanta will get $12.2 million to help pay for more than 140 advanced substations, routers and other equipment that can be repaired remotely, reducing the need to send technicians to the sites.

And the Georgia System Operations Corp. in Tucker will get $6.5 million to upgrade its computer systems so that it can predict problems and load demands across its network, which supplies power to about half of all Georgia households through nearly 40 member utilities.

"A lot of this is not glossy stuff unless you're an engineer," said Raleigh Nobles, senior vice president of Georgia Systems Operations Corp. "But to us it's pretty glossy."

Obama Administration officials said the projects will create thousands of jobs and cut billions in energy costs over time. But some Republicans disputed that and found reason to fault the program.

"As unemployment continues to rise, we are regularly reminded that the so-called stimulus was less a jobs bill and more a grab bag of borrowing and spending projects," U.S. Rep. Tom Price, a Roswell Republican said in a statement. He faulted the administration for not doing more to advance energy generation in America through increased drilling for oil and other means.

Most of the 100 projects announced by the Obama Administration Tuesday involve smart meter programs like the one being rolled out in Cobb County over the next two years.

As part of that project, which will cost an estimated $33.8 million in all, the Cobb EMC also plans to offer 40,000 load-control devices to customers that will help them automatically control their power usage. The devices can determine the best times for big appliances to use power, letting consumers buy electricity when demand -- and prices -- are low. An air conditioner with a load management device, for instance, could turn itself off after 45 minutes when electricity prices are at their highest instead of running for hours.

Smart meters also save the utility money because it reduces maintenance costs and eliminates the need for on-site meter readers, said engineer Lee.

"We were looking at a 10-year payback, but getting half the money from the government will give us a much shorter payback," she said. "It makes it much more feasible."

Creating a nationwide "smart grid" built on devices like smart meters and load-controllers was a campaign promise of Obama's and is a major step toward making the nation's aging power supply system more efficient and reliable.

"The current system is outdated and dilapidated," Carol Browner, director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change said on a conference call with reporters. Obama's smart grid program "is not only about how to make the current system better and smarter ... it's about how to make this outdated system work in today's world."

Smart meters are nothing new, and utilities nationwide have been building their own local smart grid networks in fits and starts for years.

Southern Co. subsidiary Georgia Power began installing early-generation smart meters across its network in January 2008 as a first step toward eventually giving its customers real-time usage and rate monitoring information and flexible pricing in the near future.

And Landis+Gyr, a Swiss smart meter company that has its U.S. headquarters in Alpharetta, is in the middle of a major roll-out of more advanced smart meters to more than 7 million customers of the Oncor utility in Texas.

But Obama Administration officials say they think much more could -- and should -- be done to advance smart grid technologies.

Citing an analysis by the Electric Power Research Institute, the White House claims that implementation of smart grid technologies could reduce electricity use by more than 4 percent by 2030, saving $20.4 billion for businesses and consumers across the country.

The 100 projects that will get Recovery Act funding grants were selected from the Department of Energy from more than 400 applications from private companies, utilities and local governments nationwide.