Al Gore's 'Unified Smart Grid' vision for repowering the USA - will it happen?

Al Gore's 'Unified Smart Grid' vision for repowering the USA - will it happen?

Summary: This week's Web 2.0 Summit was characterized by some very big picture ideas culminating in final keynote speaker former US vice president Al Gore laying out his vision for a 'Unified National Smart Grid': a new, state of the art integrated electrical infrastructure for the USA.

TOPICS: Browser

1908 Model T Ford & Tesla Roadster

This week's Web 2.0 Summit was characterized by some very big picture ideas culminating in final keynote speaker former US vice president Al Gore laying out his vision for a 'Unified National Smart Grid': a new, state of the art integrated electrical infrastructure for the USA.

The proposed smart grid would take advantage of advances in energy efficiency and renewable power generation to create 100% clean electricity that could power clean, 'plug in' electric 'cars' or transportation devices.

The problem, solution and benefits as outlined at

The Problem: The US electricity transmission and distribution system – or ‘grid’ -- is in critical need of an upgrade. It is old, balkanized and too limited in its reach. The current grid is a series of independently operating regional grids – it can’t meet the needs of a nation whose economy would benefit substantially from the system optimization that comes with national interconnection. Its limitations and vulnerability to failure are also reported to cost the nation $80 billion to $188 billion per year in losses due to grid-related power outages and power quality issues.1 And most critical to clean energy development, areas rich in renewable resources like solar, wind and geothermal are currently not well-served and thus have no ‘highway’ available to move power outputs to the markets where that power is needed.

The Solution: Modernize and expand the infrastructure for moving electricity from where it is generated to where it is needed through a unified national smart grid. Make that grid ‘smart’ so that it can monitor and balance the load, accommodate distributed energy from local areas and, in the near future, capitalize on a massive national fleet of clean plug-in cars. This new grid encompasses both the long-distance, high-voltage transmission lines and the lower voltage distribution systems that connect the power to customers.

The Benefits: Updating our grid with advanced transmission will save money, increase reliability and protect consumers from outages, and make possible a clean electricity system. It will move renewable power from where it is generated to wherever it’s needed, whenever it’s needed. Just like the interstate highway system and railroads before it, investing in modernization of the grid will create thousands of jobs for American workers.

Gore was hugely impressive at Web 2.0 Summit. I'll be seeing him again at the HCL Unstructure Global Meet conference in Florida later this month, where I'm mentoring a panel on 'Employee first: How do you align employee self interest and awareness with the business?' It will be interesting to see the reaction to Gore's ideas from that audience, and to watch as political events unfold over the coming months.

It's a measure of the stature of the Web 2.0 Summit conference that ideas of this magnitude are considered part of the Web 2.0 world: Elon Musk, founder of PayPal and more recently Tesla discussed his plans for other electric vehicle development, space exploration and renewable energy, while Shai Agassi, former President of the Products and Technology Group (PTG) at SAP AG and now CEO of Better Place, discussed building a scalable and sustainable personal transportation system that ends oil dependence.

In a year which marks the 100th anniversary of the introduction of Henry Ford's mass produced model T, we appear to be entering an era where the huge automotive global monoliths are being challenged by agile transportation startups exploiting a whole new emerging paradigm.

But how did Web 2.0 go from being some nifty ajax user browser interface work to the grandiose ideas of Gore, Musk, Agassi and others? Michael Wesch's 'The Machine is Us/ing Us' pointed out the early Web 2.0 linked people - sharing, trading and collaborating information freed from the constraints of Web 1.0 - in mash ups of information flows.

The reality is that the huge successes, advances and fortunes Web 2.0 has created have been fundamental to the continuing explosion of the internet, which globally doubles in size every 18 months.

The Web 2.0 Summit is arguably misnamed at this point since the focus is increasingly on the impact internet enabled collective intelligence is having on global society. and of course the business opportunities associated with that...

Combined New Deal & Moon Shot stimulus effect Apart from the decrepit US power grid being massively inefficient, the 'New Deal' style public works project would be a major economic stimulus in the USA, while also homogenizing the grid so it is able to move to a powerful new generation of 'always on' electric utility style internet and connectivity.

These twin benefits - economic stimulation and next generation infrastructure - would have the impact of John F. Kennedy announcing the goal of conducting manned moon landing missions in 1961, as Gore suggested.

That feat was accomplished within the proposed 10 year timeframe on July 20, 1969 by Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin, with Michael Collins in Moon orbit during the Apollo 11 mission. (One of the greatest collaboration projects in history!)

It would be great to see the energy and momentum generated by the recent US election continue into the development of a Unified Smart Grid that would arguably be the foundations of an electronic society in the future, but is there the political will to make this happen?

Topic: Browser


Oliver Marks leads the Global Digital Enterprise Team at HP, having previously provided seasoned independent consulting guidance to companies on effective planning of business strategy, tactics, technology decisions, roll out and enduring use models that make best use of modern collaborative and social networking tools to achieve their business goals.

These are Oliver's views and not those of his employer HP.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Gore Mistake

    Al is making a big mistake with marketing this plan.

    Power transmission is extremely inefficient, and the infrastructure is very costly to maintain. This cannot change with a ?smart grid?, because no grid is smart enough to outwit physics.

    Its real simple, electricity is a flow of electrons and as it travels through power lines there are very wasteful and expensive losses. Power lines are an old technology and long distance transmission is just wasting precious energy.

    And then Al wants us to forget the math and think we can take emerging tech like solar energy, which at its very best is only 40% efficient and then transmit that power over long distances. Talk about an electric bill going up!

    What we need is more decentralized transmission so impacts of outages are minimal. Lets keep investing in fuel cells which could power neighborhoods, or heck even individual homes.
    • True, but...

      Yes, you are correct about these losses.


      When your power source is solar as opposed to fossil fuels, who cares about losses? Yes you will need to capture more sunlight to offset losses, but all you are doing is taking heat that would have been released by the sun hitting the ground and releasing it along the transmission lines instead. The net loss is zero since the energy was free and clean to begin with.

      The challenge is not to try and create a loss-less transmission system, the challenge is to develop solar cell technology that is cheap and environmentally sound. These solar cells don't need to be efficient either, just cheap to manufacture in bulk. Seriously, do we have a limit on how much open space we have to deploy these solar cells into? No, we have vast uninhabited deserts that would be ideal to build large solar farms. I believe something like 100 square miles will cover all of the US' power needs, including all transportation needs. Sounds like a lot but it is a tiny blip in one of our vast desserts. Also take into consideration that we spend something like 350 billion dollars on oil every year and you see that this solution makes even more sense. 350 billion dollars buys you a lot of solar cells. The only time solar cell efficiency is important is when you want to use it to power a satellite, or something similar where space is truly at a premium.

      I see three main obstacles for this country becoming 100% reliant on solar:

      1) Solar cell technology needs to be improved so that they can be developed cheap and in large quantities. If solar cells are not the answer, then some other solar technology like sterling or something similar would also work.

      But we need to spend research $ on this. And it doesn't have to be super efficient.

      2) Power grid is outdated. It can't carry the amount of power needed for this country to become 100% electricity powered. And yes, something like doubling the cable thicknesses will cut your losses in half, so there are things that can make the transmission more efficient.

      3) Battery technology in electric cars need to be improved to the point where we can get 200 to 300 miles on one charge. And similar to solar cells, these batteries need to be cheap and environmentally sound. We have everything else wrt electric cars already sorted out. Electric motors used in current electric cars are already extremely efficient and powerful.

      So yea, transmission loss is an unfortunate problem but it is not such a big problem as you make it out to be.
      • I'd also like to add...

        If you consider that we currently spend about $350 billion on oil every year:

        1) Since solar cells have a life span of about 10 years, we could spend $3.5 trillion upfront on solar energy infrastructure and still end up spending the same amount of money in 10 years that we would have spent on oil.

        2) That $350 billion would no longer leave the country, but stay right here where it creates jobs in building and maintaining the solar infrastructure.
        • Wrong argument

          Again, I can't figure out how you continue to connect my rejection of a smart grid to a condemnation of solar energy.

          That is 100% not my point, but does serve to proove how much confusion Al Gore creates by infering a connection between the two.

          A couple of solar plants in the CA desert connecting into the existing transmission infrastruction with minimal upgrades could give power to all of this huge state.

          What I want is not for these huge power companies (like Souther Calif. Edison) to get huge wasteful funding for this new grid when that same money can go into new solar tech.
        • Actually, we send $700 billion...

          Actually, we send $700 billion to other countries and we spend about $1 trillion a year total buying oil from all sources combined (domestic and foreign).

          As far as modernizing the grid, there are ways to conduct electricity over long distances with very little loss, they are just relatively expensive. Superconductivity, for example, has been around for 30+ years. Al Gore proposes modernizing our grid in a forward-looking way, which means NOT using the same old technologies we used in the 1800's.

          All of that said, however, I have always thought generating electricity where it is used makes the most sense. Stick solar panels and small wind turbines on every roof. Put Stirling cycle natural gas generators or fuel cells in all backyards. Once each building becomes self-sufficient for clean energy, the grid can simply be retired.
          • Agree

            Exactly, we can keep that 700 billion here at home.

            Almost every home, business, high rise in the US has the capacity to generate some power from solar, wind, and soon fuel cells.

            Maybe today we only have the technology to get partially off the grid. That is largely dependant on the individual building and financial issues. But it only takes a few percent reduction in peak power needs to take huge pressure off of the grid, and it can actually reduce power costs for everyone on the grid ? even if they don?t have alternative energy.
      • Yes...BUT

        My argument was not against investing in solar plants and related technology, or any other alternative energy.

        But the combination of investing in a new smart grid and solar energy at its current efficiency would drive up the cost/kwh very high when compared to coal and oil fired plants.

        Actual power cost as you know already stands as a huge barrier to alternative energy.

        I'm not denying we should build some huge solar plants in our desert country and build out power lines to link into the grid, I'm just saying a massive project to build a wholey new smart grid is too much waste with little reward.

        Also, if solar and fuel cell technology investments result in more effiecient production, those could be deployed more locally -- even at the individual residence level. Really, if research makes solar 60% efficient and inexpensive lets get it on as many houses as possible so we have some independance from the grid!

        These local deployments will reduce the transmission cost, lost power, and potential mass outages suffered by a grid.

        Transmission losses are around 7-8% througout the grid which is not an insignificant loss. And take a look at your power bill if your state mandates a breakout (CA does) of transmission vs production cost. You'll see it is not uncommon for 40-50% of your bill be due to transmission.
        • Any losses

          [i]Transmission losses are around 7-8% througout the grid which is not an insignificant loss[/i]

          Any losses become insignificant when the source of the energy is free. We are brainwashed into thinking we [b]have[/b] to squeeze every last bit of useful energy out of a given source, and it is not even worth trying until we can make the solor cells 60% efficient or whatever. High efficiency only applies when you pay for the fuel source and the conversion process causes environmental damage. With solar, you just have to figure out how to convert and transmit it cheaply, but not necessarily efficiently. Not just that, but when the time comes to replace the solar cells after 10 years or so, they can be easily swapped out for more efficient cells that have been developed since the original installation. And unlike a coal burning or nuclear power plant, a solar farm is modular and can be upgraded/repaired in sections without ever needing to go offline.

          I only disagree with you in the sense that we [b]do[/b] need an updated grid. The current grid can hardly support hot days in my area. We have had rolling blackouts intermittently in my area over the years.

          And I think relying on solar conversion at the resident level is wrong because in reality it would only be practical a smal amount of cases. Many people live in areas where solar doesn't make sense, or the population density is too large (high-rise buildings) to make it useful. And then you have maintenance issues. With a large, centralized solar farm, you can do all the construction and maintenance in a well managed environment, and you can easily upgrade the solar cells as the technology is improved. I can imagine many neglected residential solar cell installations after 10 years becoming nothing but an eyesore because the owner can't afford to repair or upgrade the system.
          • Solar Efficiency DOES matter

            Efficiency matters because it determines how many
            solar cells you need for a given amount of power. The
            number of cells then determines how much land you
            need... and both the cells and the land cost
            money...even in the desert. Deserts are also a viable
            ecosystem for many plants and animals, meaning land
            use should be optimized... so yes, efficiency still
          • Losses do matter, easy to prove

            I have to respectfully disagree with your insistence that losses don?t matter. They do.

            Just because the ?fuel? for solar power is free, that doesn?t mean solar power is free. If it were such a slam dunk then every house in the South West states would have solar panels and be self sufficient. The problem is cost relative to power production, or watts/sqft of solar panel.

            This is NOT speculation on my part, there are already operational solar plants and their problem is that the capital cost, ongoing maintenance cost, generation efficiency, and transmission costs all add up to making solar more expensive per kwh.

            There is nothing new here. You can?t simply assume that solar energy costs are ?free?. Hydro is also a good example. Lots of people get power from the Hoover dam and other hydro power plants in the US. Tell me how ?free? their electric bill is.

            And actually the magic of solar is you can bring it closer to the point of consumption in many areas of the country. The more power generated locally and regionally will reduce pressure on the big grid.

            I also have never said we should remove the grid. But we need to have a comprehensive plan which moves as many homes/businesses as possible into generating at least part of their own power, either from solar, wind, or fuel cell. That way, when those hot summer days come around we don?t have to have rolling blackouts, because they are the perfect days for solar!
          • Convergence

            This is a typical but incorrect argument, not in its subject or facts but in the assumptions carried into the discussion. First, the energy problem is not an either/or problem. It is a both/and problem. If we are discussing which should come first, a high efficiency smart distribution network or distributed, appropriate close-to-use technologies, then the answer is yes and yes. At the end of the day we need both. In the transition we need both. Scientific fact, market forces, public policy decisions and economic interests will, inevitably combine to deliver what we will eventually get. Our job, today, is to visualize a world operating efficiently on multiple levels and to resist the mental entropy of needing to agree.
  • RE: Al Gore's 'Unified Smart Grid' vision for repowering the USA - will it happen?

    New Deal? As in FDR's New Deal..? But this time with AlGore sitting in a chair and his finger on the dial that powers the power meter that sits on the wall of the building that sits on our (pre Fanny and Freddie) private property? No thanks..

    The story by the AFP that covered this event reports a new marketing term was floated by Mr. Gore describing this new state of bliss "The electrinet"

    News Alert for the reporter named Al from Tenn.. More energy is the most priority for our economy.. Not renaming it.. If you can make it clean and efficient great.. Nobody with a brain likes poisoning their own children here.. And by the way, the Arctic Ice actually cap grew this year..

    It seems that almost always missing from the 'Green Energy' stories on this network and elsewhere within the MSP is basic Econ 101 reminder that without energy our economy starves.. My laptop can't be recharged. I can't go to and click on the ads that keep the reporters writing about Al's energy plan.. Unless of course it's going to be a single 'free' government sponsored connection that's sitting there with a 'chicken in every pot' and is just 'too good to refuse.' Thanks but no thanks..

    I like the idea of of this country remaining the beacon of free enterprise, and her soil keeping real businesses that make real things participating the option of having having access to a competitive data and energy market.. Simple stuff.. No 'fuzzy math' (Al's famous line) or 'fuzzy physics' (my new line).

    How about some solutions for getting more power into the grid? For instance, is linking to a story right now titled "Mini nuclear plants to power homes; shed-size reactors..." .. Oh.. and by golly guess what? This power is 'carbon neutral'.. (Like the electrons give a damn or something..) There's some power.. Let's go get it..

    I also like jeffhere's comment about fuel cells. They can run on hydrogen. Which is generated by by electrifying H20. Natural Gas turbines, Nukes, wind and solar and even squirrel powered treadmills near an acorn farm can all spin the magnet past a conductor and create AC power.. It can of course than be inverted to DC if need be.... There's some more power. Let's go get it..
  • RE: Al Gore's 'Unified Smart Grid' vision for repowering the USA - will it

    the present state of the electrical grid in this country makes it impossible to utilize re-chargeable vehicles, with power shortages in summer already occurring in neighborhoods in NYC, putting the additional load of hundreds of thousands of charging vehicles would bring the city to a standstill. I don't know how to encourage private enterprise to create additional capacity, but the cities are the most logical place to start using electric vehicles, since distances are short, and smaller vehicles are desirable.
    As for a nationwide grid, the electric companies, again, have no incentive to do anything but the minimum, just like the banking industry, deregulation has not favored the common man, just the shareholders, which at this point may not even live in this country. It's about time to stop fearing government regulation, and let industry learn to play by some rules that favor the masses that live HERE.
    sparkle farkle
  • RE: Al Gore's 'Unified Smart Grid' vision for repowering the USA - will it happen?

    An UltraGrid Tieline for Linking the Nations Electric Utilities
    A SuperGrid has been proposed to tie together the nation???s utilities. A superconducting Tieline would serve the country well in this era of terrorist threats. The reliability and availability of cost-effective electric power is also threatened following natural disasters such as earthquakes, ice storms, hurricanes and floods, since the nation???s electric power utilities are only connected regionally. In the Far West, for example, only north-south tielines exist, and there are choke points. As a consequence, power cannot be imported from, or exported to, the East or Midwest. With heavy air-conditioning loads and other factors already resulting in brownouts and serious power shortages - a national Tieline connecting all part of the Nation would offer major benefits.

    However, the present SuperGrid proposal assumes cryogenically cooled superconductors will be utilized, complicating the Tieline by requiring many thousands of miles of tubing filled with liquid hydrogen, a costly refrigerant. Ultraconductors have extremely high current densities at ambient temperatures. They require no refrigeration whatsoever.

    The SuperGrid concept, as outlined by Dr. Paul M Grant in the May, 2007 issue of the magazine POWER, incorporates nuclear power plants as an integral part of the proposed system. The UltraGrid concept is totally compatible with a potentially far better alternative, the revolutionary new energy conversion systems that Magnetic Power Inc. is developing. MPI generators are inherently capable of installation at the point of use. They can also turn vehicles into power plants - wirelessly connected to the grid when parked. These systems, using energy never before commercialized, will power individual homes, stores and factories. See the website: Ultraconductors can eventually replace copper wire in many types of motors and generators, helping to greatly reduce total energy demand.

    Due to the resistance heating of wire, power transmission lines in the U.S. lose 11% of the electricity they carry in the form of heat - at a cost exceeding $80 billion annually. Each 1% reduction of these transmission losses would save above $500 million every year. Load leveling on a national basis might save an additional 5% of energy loss and 2% of new plant construction could be unnecessary - adding up to a savings of perhaps $65 billion in avoided cost for infrastructure. In addition, national load leveling will reduce the plant construction needed for growing peak power demands. Thus, an UltraGrid Tieline will more than pay for itself.

    Ultraconductors in the form of wire and cable are on the horizon. An UltraGrid system could utilize Ultraconductors operating at ambient temperatures. The economics of a National Tieline would be far more cost-effective, if Ultraconductors are utilized for the major parts of the system rather than cryogenically refrigerated Superconductors.

    A Tieline made of Ultraconductors could consist of a buried cable - carrying AC power at 5,000 volts or less, identical in power handling capability to a more than 100,000 volt system on towers - with minimal environmental degradation. This is due to the extremely high current density. For additional information, see the soon to be updated, website:
    • New tech = less transmission not more

      Most people don't realize that new green tech makes a reduction in power transmission and less stress on the grid, not more.

      The reason power generation today requires all of the long transmission lines is due to inability to scale down coal and oil power productiion to the local or even home level.

      This is due to cost and safety of the fuel combustion and generation process which would not allow this to happen on the small scale.

      But new power tech like solar and fuel cell can already be done on a small scale. All we need is for some of the recent advances in each of these green production methods to come down in cost or be subsidised by the government.

      More localized production puts less stress on the grid, can make many homes close to or self sufficient, nearly eliminates mass outages, and keeps the energy brokers (ala Enron) from messing up our lives.

      We don't need a new grid. We need the same billions to create clean energy technologies that can be scaled down.
  • Distributed Generation and Smart Grid

    I'm actually involved in an early smart-grid project (the residential smart metering portion).

    The combination of a smart grid + distributed generation would allow power to be generated anywhere and to be distributed in the most efficient way possible to the areas that need it.

    This means power generated in the north-west would NOT be transmitted to Florida (unless something REALLY crazy is going on)... that's why it's a SMART grid. It's supposed to be "intelligent" enough to take things like loss factors into account when distributing electricity.

    What is needed is a North American (mainly US & Canada, but Mexico should probably be part of it too) strategy for electricity generation, distribution and consumption management. This doesn't mean centrally controlled, etc... it just means that the high level long term strategy is developed by gov't and the implementation details are done by the industry. There are a LOT of hurdles to overcome, but electricity is what drives our economy, and it's reliability & availability needs to be ensured (and secured, which is a whole BOOK of issues when you consider that SCADA systems can be used to destroy generators).

    And food for thought:
    • Good input from someone involved

      Its good to hear some input from someone involved with this new grid concept.

      My biggest concern is that we'll concentrate too much funding on this old grid concept, putting that investment before localized generation investments.

      It seems clear to me that putting the super grid investments first benefits the old school energy producers and ensures their dominance in the new energy economy.

      Whereas if we concenetrated our money on local generation first, which will reduce the capacity needs and problems of today's grid, then we can still make an investment in grid improvements, but that investment will be more modest and not giving the big energy guys control of our future.
  • agile not just for cars

    It's interesting that we are willing to forego the monolithic car companies in favor of startups, but not the power suppliers.

    To rethink power, we need to also allow for the monlithic power companies to get competition from startups who may have a better way.

    The political will is divided - we're saving the Big3 with bailout money, while encouraging the agile startups to do all their own work? And we'll replace the power grid, I'm guessing at taxpayer expense, then hand it to the power companise?

    Let me guess: The government will create another unforeseen problem with power, then rush to "solve" it with taxpayer money, then proclaim themselves saviors.

    We can't replace the power grid without the government, of course. But we can't have a schizoid government that picks and chooses its favorites to save or subsidize.
  • Research already underway

    NC State University and other universities have recently received a research grant from NSF for a "Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management Systems Center". Information on this new center can be found at
  • Al Gore's 'An Idiot's' vision."

    Come on, people! It's Al Gore for chriss sake! His vision of big govenment dictating your life style is scary enough, but to give this bozo credit for ANY new thinking revels how deep in the Kool-aid you are drinking.
    Drill here, drill now! When the oil is gone, if it goes, free market capitalism will provide a substitute, not the govenment!
    Kyser Soze