The Next Big Oil: Big Smart Grid?


Photo via the New Republic

It's a widely held notion that politicians have long been in the pocket of Big Oil. And there's good reason for that perception: oil companies' huge campaign donations, vast lobbying power, and close ties to politicians have ensured that their taxes remain low, that hidden subsidies are around to provide extra funding, and that they receive preferential treatment in US energy policy. But there could be a new, greener 'Big Oil' coming to town that politicians owe their favors to—'Big Smart Grid'. Rise of Big Smart Grid?
As we do with 'Big Oil', let's just use 'Big Smart Grid' to describe the most powerful companies that are in line to get loads of government funding, this time through the stimulus bill and the proposed budget (okay, so 'Big Smart Grid' doesn't quite have the same nefarious ring, but just work with me here). Many of these smart grid technology companies, like Google and IBM, were big Obama campaign supporters, and each made sizable donations that helped him get elected.

According to a report from Politico, these companies had a little more than a general hope for change in mind when they coughed up the big bucks:

"Employees from some of the nation’s biggest high-tech companies bet heavily last year that famously tech-savvy Barack Obama would be good news for their bottom lines. And it seems their wager paid off. Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus bill includes $4.5 billion in funding for the so-called Smart Grid, an ambitious plan to modernize the country’s electric grid that many Obama contributors are helping to shape."

Now 'Big Smart Grid', which includes, Google, Microsoft, IBM, and General Electric, among others, is positioning itself to capitalize on its "warm relationship" with the Obama administration. Each expects to be included when stimulus funds are doled out, to help finance projects like Google's PowerMeter, an online app that tracks home energy use, and GE's Smart Meters (the company plans on selling millions of them with the soon-to-be-growing demand). In fact, these two companies have already partnered specifically to develop smart grid technology.

Big Smart Grid Vs Big Oil
So what's the deal? Is Big Smart Grid going to be as shady and bad as Big Oil?

Um, hardly. Remember, the point of developing the smart grid is to modernize our national electrical system—making it more energy efficient and cutting carbon emissions (by up to 15% by some estimates) in the process. The point of Big Oil, as I recall is to capitalize on the sale of an unsustainable fuel, and add exponentially to the carbon emission mess in the process. Small difference, right?

Furthermore, we should want our nation's most forward-thinking companies behind smart grid development—those who stand to be rewarded now had the foresight to know technological advances in energy efficiency would soon be in high demand. As for the political gamesmanship involved, companies winning favors by making donations is never ideal—but it's a political reality, even in the most change-inclined White House we've seen in a long while. At least we can rest assured that the favors are being doled out to support a more energy efficient future, not a crumbling dynasty that has bound the US to oil dependence for decades.

More on Smart Grids
Clean Tech Forum 2009: Smart Grid Panel is the Most Important of ...
Building Smart Grid Systems: Is Your Neighborhood on Board?
Boulder, Colorado: First to Have a Smart Grid ?

Tags: Economics | Electricity | Energy Efficiency | Google | Utilities

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