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The National Academy of Engineering recently set out to identify the most important engineering feats of the 20th Century. Their list included many landmark achievements, such as the Internet (13th) and highways (11th), but they ultimately proclaimed electrification to be “the single most significant engineering achievement of the 20th Century."

But as I said yesterday when I spoke to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), our nation has underinvested in the electric grid for decades. As a result of that neglect, our electric transmission system is not as reliable as it should be and is far too costly. It is also not as flexible as it could be, making it harder to make use of renewable energy resources like solar and wind power.

Our electrical grid needs to step into the 21st century. It must be able to generate and communicate real time data about energy generation, transmission, use and pricing. It should provide consumers with real time data on their energy use and its costs -- giving everyone the chance to manage their own energy use and save money. It should also provide utilities with instantaneous information about generation, allowing increased use of renewable energy such as wind and solar power (which can quickly go on or offline depending upon whether the wind is blowing or the sun is shining). It should also provide real time data about transmission, so outages can be instantly identified and fixed or -- better yet -- avoided entirely.

To properly gather and move this information around, utilities will need to use communications networks and explore the integration of broadband technologies. The FCC explored this issue in its National Broadband Plan, stating that “realizing the promise of the Smart Grid will require the addition of two-way communications, sensors and software to the electrical system, both in the grid and in the home. Communications are fundamental to all aspects of the Smart Grid, including generation, transmission, distribution and consumption.” It also asked the Energy Department to explore a number of important issues arising from the collection, transmission and use of data by utilities, consumers and others.

Modernizing the grid in a way that cost-effectively meets our most important goals requires thought and planning. That’s why the Energy Department has reached out to industry, state regulators, and the public to convene a public discussion on important grid modernization issues. We have held public meetings and are now gathering written comments. You can review the information we have gathered so far and add your own ideas to the discussion by contacting us via e-mail by August 9th, 2010. This fall we will issue reports to synthesize this discussion, inform regulators and policy-makers about what we have learned, and offer suggestions about how quickly and effectively to improve the grid.

Scott Blake Harris serves as the General Counsel for the Department of Energy.