IntelliGridlogo.jpgKatrina showed that much of our infrastructure can be bottlenecked, from our electrical grids, to our telecom networks. Some said media coverage seemed to work best, but that was decentralized — as exemplified by the vibrant work of bloggers.

On one of the failings, for example the electric grid, there’s a worrying lack of urgency. Again, it is fertile Silicon Valley that has ideas about how rejig our grid. The problem is building the political case, to get approval in Washington, and the states.

Our story, published today in the Mercury News (free registration), is about how venture capitalists and technologists in Silicon Valley agree with the proposal, by Palo Alto’s Electric Power Research Institute, for something called the Intelligrid. It makes sense. Instead of hundreds of power plants, such as giant 1,200 megawatt nuclear power plants, powering our needs, we should have millions of solar powered…

…residences and workplaces — or at least a power source closer to their destination — so that a good fraction of the power doesn’t get wasted in transportation.

And that way, a single error at one plant, or cut in an electrical transmission line, doesn’t shut down the power of 2 million people, as it did last month yet again in Southern California.

Utilities would have to buy into idea, which arguably is against their interests — they’d lose control. So our politicians need to be pressured. And they’re not feeling that pressure. We’re interested in feedback on the Intelligrid idea, from other cleantech experts like Rob Day. Is it really just politically dead in the water? (Update: See Rob’s great response here.)

Locally, it is significant because the California Independent System Operator, which oversees most of the state’s electricity system, has just approved a $300 million transmission line that brings power into S.F. from Pittsburg under the S.F. Bay. That’s a whopping-big line. Sounds like the opposite of the Intelligrid, but maybe we’re missing something. Apparently, it still needs environmental approval.

Meanwhile, check out the idea of Felix Kramer, co-founder of the Palo Alto company, CalCars — retrofitting the Toyota Prius hybrid to form an efficient decentralized electric generator grid. The raft of comments suggest he’s on to something.

Felix informed us this morning, after reading our story, that EPRI has actually been pushing this idea of the Intelligrid for decades, but simply came up with the name 4 years ago. It is the brainchild of EPRI’s founder, Chauncey Starr now 93, and still going in to work.

Related to all this, there’s an Red Herring interview with Nancy Floyd, co-founder of the San Francisco venture firm, Nth Power, and note her answer to the question about where the next big opportunity in cleantech:

The big infrastructure problem is the aging grid, and the whole automation area. The average age of transformers is 38 years, and their design life is 40. Almost every week transformers explode, causing outages, costing money, even killing people. And how do they find out if a transformer is going to fail? They send someone out to take a sample of oil from the transformer and send it to a lab to get results a week later. It’s just one poignant example of how antiquated the system is. I think about my boys instant messaging for fun, and we still send meter readers out. It’s something that has to change


Meanwhile, the NYT fell on another “decentralization” story, about telecom. It notes the drawbacks of the incumbent phone network, and advantages of the decentralized nature of WiFi. If cities had lots of little WiFi nodes, their communications might stay up during a Katrina-like catastrophe. Note, too, how these networks could best be powered by distributed solar or other energy sources.

There’d be work for Silicon Valley companies, too. The NYT piece says the cost of the WiFi network is laughable. It refers to the Silicon Valley (Sunnyvale) company, Tropos:

Alternatively, a city could simply hire a mesh-networking company like Tropos Networks, which estimates a cost of $70,000 to cover a square mile with DSL-speed connections. These numbers are so low that they are virtually rounding errors in any city’s budget.