West Virginia was the first state to begin implementing a statewide Smart Grid Plan. The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory teamed up with Horizon Energy Group out of Tennessee – where Nashville has had their “Green Power Switch” in place for some time – to begin a study for a possible West Virginia state Smart Grid.
The study, which officially began in July of 2008, was first instituted in order to examine what roadblocks existed to getting the entire state up on a Smart Grid, what the costs would be, what customer opinion and benefits there were, what utilities would be available to consumers, and to determine what technology would be needed to implement this plan, versus what technology West Virginia already possessed.
What exactly is a Smart Grid? It’s a new type of power grid that balances our need for electricity with our economic and ecological considerations. However, Smart Grids aren’t just about the environment and saving energy. These grids are about lowering energy costs and improving performance, over the existing out-dated grids currently used to transmit and measure power to and from homes and businesses. The existing grids in many states were decades old, created before the internet was more than a dream. New smart grids would incorporate advances in technology and allow these smart grids to self-diagnose outages. Under current grids, power companies are forced to wait for customer call-ins to alert them when problems occur, as many systems have no alarms in place to let them know when power has failed – or if it has, where the problem lies. New systems would not only tell power company workers that an outage is taking place, but workers would be able to pinpoint the location of the failure, saving repair time and therefore money.
After the West Virginia study began, several other states started their own Smart Grid plans, including California, Texas, Illinois, Pennsylvania and many others. So West Virginia certainly started an excellent trend, as now more states will soon be set up for maximizing efficiency and minimizing environmental impact. However, it isn’t all good news out of West Virginia, environmentally speaking. WV recently approved a new initiative to require a quarter of all energy to come from alternative sources, but then they took a few liberties with the current accepted meaning of the phrase “alternative energy resources”.
What is “clean” coal? West Virginia has had a so-called “clean” coal plant for about 3 years, as part of a multi-million dollar project that started in 2004. Clean coal is considered a viable alternative to traditional coal plants when proper methods are adhered to, such as carbon capture and sequestration, so that the greenhouse gases are reduced or even eliminated. However, the new legislation does not restrict clean coal usage to these less-polluting guidelines in order to be considered alternative – and those carbon capture technologies are not yet fully refined, in any case. There are only 4 facilities in the world that currently have those methods in place on any kind of large scale.
The guidelines also include natural gas and used tires as “alternative energy resources”(SB297 §24-2F-3), which the West Virginia Environmental Council claims misses the point of alternative energy initiatives altogether and puts West Virginia going backwards compared to the rest of the country. These polluting energies would even be eligible for alternative fuel credits. Opponents to this bill are afraid that this new legislation will eliminate any benefits from the Smart Grid because when those polluting resources are defined as alternative energies, it is obviously easier to continue taking 25% of electrical power from polluting power plants that already exist, rather than from cleaner sources that have not yet been built, to meet the alternative energy resource requirement.
West Virginia seems to be walking both sides of the environmental argument at once, and which side will win out in the end, only time will tell. In any case, the Smart Grid is not yet in place and there are plans to fight this bill. Hopefully, the same intentions that led West Virginia to start the statewide Smart Grid plan will lead the state back toward a future of less pollution, instead of the more polluted future up to which it would seem Senate Bill 297 is leading them.