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Why America Needs a 21st Century Power Grid

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When the west wind blows hard across the prairies, its power can be seen in swirling leaves and bending trees.

Here in Illinois, we're harnessing more of that power every day, with 25 wind farms -- from one-turbine to utility-scale projects -- capturing the energy of the wind and converting it into electricity.

But we are facing a major obstacle in our push to build more and better wind farms and create clean energy jobs in Illinois and across the country. Because while we have the technology to generate a large proportion of America's electricity from wind power and solar energy, we don't yet have the infrastructure to store it or transmit it. That's an enormous problem - and one that can undermine our country's progress toward energy security, carbon reduction and job creation.

Here in America, we already have vast resources for "grow-your-own" renewable energy. The potential of land-based wind power is estimated at more than 8,000 gigawatts, and solar cells could generate far more. (To put those numbers in perspective, ConEd's all-time record demand for northern Illinois was just over 23 gigawatts, set on Aug. 3, 2006.)

But all that potential energy generation does us little good if we can't save that electricity for use at the times when the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine, and if we can't send it from the rural areas where it's created to the cities where it's needed the most. And that will require major investment in the electric grid -- the outdated, barely adequate system that moves electric power from generating stations to consumers nationwide.

As the director of the Argonne National Laboratory, I understand the great fiscal challenges facing our government. But I also know that a substantial American investment in clean energy generation, storage and transmission today could yield enormous returns for generations to come.

Recently, the American Physical Society -- the nation's leading physics association - tackled this critical issue in a new report from its Panel on Public Affairs, Integrating Renewable Electricity on the Grid. The report from the panel, which is co-chaired by George Crabtree, a Senior Scientist and Distinguished Fellow at Argonne, makes some fundamental recommendations:

The United States must develop an overall strategy for energy storage at every level -- from car batteries to the national grid.

We must create new, more powerful technology for long-distance transmission of renewable electricity, to balance rural supply and urban demand, and to integrate wind- and solar-generated electricity into the grid.

The APS also recommends a thorough review of the technological potential for a range of battery chemistries and a significant increase in R&D in basic electrochemistry. Achieving these goals would be great news, for our nation and for Illinois.

At Argonne, we have been working for decades to build new electrical energy storage systems and improve our nation's energy security. As a Department of Energy laboratory, we are committed to keeping the United States in the forefront of energy storage technology. Our lithium-ion battery technology powers electric cars, and our advanced materials research promises to create new electrochemical storage systems to light, heat and cool large buildings, industrial sites and even small cities.

With adequate resources, Argonne and other laboratories like ours could speed the pace of innovation and help to bring America's electric grid into the 21st century. Working in collaboration with universities and private industry, we can assemble "dream teams" that can keep our country in the forefront of energy technology.

Right now, America's aging power grid resembles the patchwork of narrow, winding, badly maintained highways of the 1920s and 1930s. Without the vision -- and substantial public investment -- that led to the nationwide Interstate Highway System, it would have been impossible for trucks to move large quantities of goods swiftly, safely and affordably to American cities and towns from coast to coast.

Today, we need to make the same kind of long-term, strategic investment in our power grid, making it possible to capture and store wind- and solar-generated energy and transmit it quickly and efficiently to businesses, manufacturers, and consumers nationwide.

The stakes are huge, for our nation and for Illinois. According to a new study by the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago, there are more than 100 Illinois companies -- with a total of 15,000 employees -- working in the wind power supply chain. The study estimates that every megawatt of power developed creates 17 new manufacturing jobs.

President Eisenhower's investment in the Interstate Highway System, which created a 20th century infrastructure for 20th century transportation, has yielded extraordinary dividends for our country and our economy. It's time to build a 21st century electricity grid to transmit and store the clean, renewable power America needs to remain competitive in this century.