A few weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced a new funding initiative for grid modernization. It provides $220 million in proposed research funding and includes an emphasis on hardening the electric grid against cyber attacks as well as clean energy integration and standards and test procedures to make our modern grid truly functionally integrated.
I occasionally talk about my work at family gatherings. The power industry is actually a pretty dynamic place to work these days. One of the things I do, just to stay abreast of coming changes, is monitor research and technology demonstration projects in the industry. Whenever I mention government funding, as is the case above, an uncle or brother-in-law will say ”… remember the shrimp on the treadmill?...” referring to a story about a half-million-dollar research grant from a federal foundation that was purportedly used to study shrimp exercising on a tiny treadmill (see video clip here: http://burnettl.people.cofc.edu/research/treadmill.php).
That allegation of wasteful spending was false. A small portion of the study dollars was used to evaluate the effect of water quality on a very important seafood species, the shrimp. This is not the first and will not be the last time that federal funding for important research is mischaracterized.
The truth of the matter is, federal research used to be the primary, if not the only way, basic research got done. The outcome was often breakthrough findings in energy and technical areas that were futuristic at the time, but we know as commonplace today. Examples include the Internet (DOD and NSF); power generation using wind (NSF and DOE); solar energy applications for power (DOE and National Renewable Energy Laboratory); biofuel and biofuel additives (DOE); plug-in electric vehicles (DOE); and the list goes on.
Possibly the granddaddy of all recent publicly funded energy investments is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which includes billions in energy investments, including $4.5 billion for grid modernization and an additional $6 billion for renewables, transmission and other technology development and demonstration projects underway at many utilities today.
An example of the groundbreaking work occurring in the area of grid hardening includes the DOE's National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) collaborative to be led by EPRI. They will assess power system and cyber security standards in meeting power-system security requirements and actually test grid security technologies for public and private developers using laboratories and pilot projects.
DOE said its research funding award falls under the Grid Modernization Laboratory Consortium, which involves numerous DOE National Laboratories, industry, academia, and state and local government agency partners across the country. The funds will establish a truly comprehensive grid-related research and development effort.
People will continue to raise the shrimp treadmill and relatively rare events like the bankruptcy of Solyndra, but from what I can see of past successes and the groundbreaking work underway today, federal research dollars and our National Laboratories are creating value that will reap significant benefits for the power industry for decades to come. So ignore that uncle or brother-in-law when they are critical, and stay informed, or better yet, get involved and let’s make the best of the collaborative research underway in our industry.