Lindsay Kishter

Right now, the smart grid has a lot of pent-up promise. This intelligent future grid is going to give us ultimate control over how much power we use, when, and even where it comes from. It’s going to give us shorter outages, even as storms get worse, by enabling resilient microgrids that keep communities humming. It’s going to deliver the super reliable and high-quality power that allows us to keep growing more and more energy-intensive digital industries. And it’s going to do it all while using cleaner power sources than ever before. It’s going to be awesome.

But it’s also going to take hundreds of billions of dollars of private investment over the next several decades to become a reality. So even as the prospect of a remarkably intelligent grid glitters before us, installing new, unproven technologies on the old, reliable grid can still seem like a leap of faith.

That’s what makes the data tucked into a series of recent reports from the Department of Energy such a goldmine. Since 2009, DOE and the electricity industry have together invested $2.96 billion in smart grid technology deployment, research, and training to do what utilities struggled to do alone—test out new technologies and system designs to see if their benefit claims held water.

So far, the message is clear: smart grid benefits are real, and investment in new technologies pays off. Here’s how:

  • The nearly $3 billion shared investment generated at least $6.8 billion in total economic output and supported 47,000 jobs in multiple sectors, not just energy.
  • For every $1 million directly spent, the GDP grew by $2.5 million—a higher multiplier than many other infrastructure investments.
  • Utilities deploying smart grid technologies are experiencing peak demand reductions up to 30%, improved reliability from shorter and less frequent outages, and significant reductions in operations and maintenance costs.
  • Utilities are encountering—and solving and sharing—interoperability and systems integration issues to smooth the road for the next wave of investments.

Though the more than 130 DOE-supported projects will be deploying and evaluating technologies through 2015, the preliminary data is putting some solid footing under the promises smart grid technologies make. The first set of technology impact reports were released in January, and the recent economic impact report gave an early view of the potential return on the department’s total $4.5 billion investment of Recovery Act funds in grid modernization.

These reports aren’t just a pat on the back. By removing some of the uncertainty around smart grid investments, they can build the case for utilities and their regulators to fund much-needed technology and system upgrades. Keep the data coming, DOE.