Sometimes it is easier to get your arms around big, complicated issues by breaking them into smaller pieces. So as President Barack Obama toured a solar energy facility in Arcadia on Tuesday and talked about $3.4 billion in federal stimulus money to modernize the nation's electric grid, our ears perked up at the talk of smart meters.
Florida Power & Light, the state's largest electric utility, won a $200 million grant and will install 2.6 million smart meters in homes across the state. The units enable homeowners to monitor their electricity use online by the hour, day, week or month. While both Progress Energy Florida and FP&L already have versions of smart meters, this will be a significant expansion and marks part of the Obama administration's plan to have 18 million of them installed nationwide. Imagine that. No more just yelling at teenagers to turn off everything before they leave the house on a hot summer day.
The administration's announcement of 100 projects across the country that won federal money to help modernize the power grid comes at a pivotal time for Florida. The state's 11 percent unemployment rate is the highest since 1975, and it has lost nearly 170,000 jobs since February. FP&L's grant, which also will help pay to install digital transformers to reduce the potential for power outages and to automate substations, is expected to create more than 6,000 jobs. Progress Energy also received $200 million to modernize its electric grid, with the money to be divided between North Carolina and Florida. Millions more will be spent from Lakeland to Tallahassee to Jacksonville. This is what the stimulus money was intended to do: Create jobs and improve the nation's infrastructure.
Obama compared the modernization of the nation's electric grid to the construction of the interstate highway system. It will be more efficient and better capable of managing the transformation to cleaner energy, just as the interstates more efficiently moved traffic. The president acknowledged that the opening of the Arcadia solar plant, the largest of its kind in the nation, and smart meters alone "will not be enough to meet the challenges posed by our dependence on fossil fuels.'' But they represent a much smarter approach than the one coming from the state capital.
As the nation focuses on renewable energy, an army of lobbyists and consultants hired by a secretive oil-drilling group are joining with incoming legislative leaders to push for lifting the ban on drilling in state waters in the gulf. At the Florida Public Service Commission, the staff is inexplicably recommending leaving in place meager energy conservation targets that most utilities already have met. So in the middle of the state Tuesday, the president stood amid solar panels and envisioned a world of electric plug-in cars, smart meters and clean energy. And in Tallahassee, the PSC postponed the vote on a lousy conservation policy.
Perhaps there is still time for the progressive energy message spreading nationwide to reach the unenlightened in the state capital.