With all the talk about action in Washington aimed at generating economic stimulus, we should not forget about the need to focus some of those economic stimulus efforts on generating. Electricity, that is.
And not just any kind of electricity, but electricity that is generated with a lot less price-fluxuating, carbon-emitting fossil fuel. And electricity that is used a lot more efficiently, with devices that help flatten out the peaks in power demand in a way that saves money both for those making electricity and those buying it.
President Obama's stimulus package, as passed by Congress, includes $11 billion to upgrade the existing infrastructure. That sounds like a lot of money, but it is a fraction of the $165 billion that experts figure would be necessary to move the nation toward a "smart grid" system of electric distribution and conservation.
With all the needs and wants that are presenting themselves for federal attention, it is unlikely that Washington will be able to fund all the needs any time soon. Thus it will be up to states, the various electric utilities and consortiums of utilities, heavy users of power and ordinary residential customers to do the job.
One step would be widespread support for the plan from Gov. David A. Paterson to boost the share of New York's electric power that comes from renewable sources to 30 percent by the year 2015.
Reformatting our grid to draw more and more of its power from the four ancient elements -- earth (geothermal), air (wind), water (hydro) and fire (solar) -- will require some big up-front investments. But in the long run, with significantly less dependence on petroleum, coal and natural gas, electric consumers should save money and allow time for another transition to take place without shorting anyone on the power they need.
That other transition is the more efficient use of however much electricity is available, from whatever source. That involves not just a smart electric grid, which quickly routes power where it is needed at peak or near-peak times, but also smart electric meters on individual homes and businesses.
Smart meters mean smarter use of power, going so far as to charge a higher price for the juice consumed at peak times and thus encourage users to shift their power draws to low-demand times. For most folks, that's as simple as running the dishwasher at night instead of during the business day, when every home and office is pulling watts for everything from laptop computers to rooftop air conditioners.
Many of those who run the various links in the New York power grid, most notably the Independent System Operator that wheels bulk power from generator to user, are fully on board with the general idea. It is just a matter of providing the leadership. And, of course, the money.