Amid fears of cyberwarfare and hacker attack, the government is moving forward on improving the U.S. power grid. "At stake is America's energy future and the economic competitiveness of our nation," declared U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. Locke made the remarks during his presentation of the first set of proposed standards for coordinating the deployment of a nationwide smart grid that would underpin the country's power infrastructure.

With such a plan comes the ever-present threat of terrorists or hackers taking advantage of such a sophisticated network. Without the proper safeguards, power plants could be shut down by criminals breaking into the smart grid's communications network from the other side of the world. Consumers could also find hackers tapping into their smart meters. So ultimately, ensuring that every point of the grid is secure is essential. "Having 48 of 50 states implement security specifications will not suffice," underscored Locke.

Locke released the 90-page report today from the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) at the government sponsored GridWeek conference in Washington, DC. Utilities, businesses, researchers and other stakeholders have 30 days to comment on the smart grid standards. Locke, an Obama appointee and former Democratic governor of Washington state, is on an ambitious timetable, hoping to have the specifications finalized before the end of the year.

A smart grid would upgrade the country's electricity infrastructure by building in two-way communications and feedback and monitoring systems that could improve the reliability and efficiency of the country's power grid. It could, for example, automatically prevent the kind of cascading power outage that blacked out much of the Northeast United States and Canada in August of 2003. Furthermore, it could tap into individual consumer demands and better manage intermittent power sources, such as wind turbines and solar fields, to lower costs and reduce our dependence on gas and coal to generate electricity.

"If a smart grid is built nationwide, it can help reduce power demand by more than 20 percent," said Locke. At least, that's the goal. But there's a long way to go.

The project would mean not only computerizing all transmission facilities to prevent such disasters as the $6 billion failure of 2003 but also installing smart meters at homes that could communicate with utility companies. Electricity in power lines cannot be stored, so utilities must constantly match the electrical generation and transmission with demand. When there's a mismatch, there's the possibility of a blackout.

A smart grid would enable utilities to more precisely predict demand and control delivery. It could also make simplify life for consumers who generate their own power (from solar or wind, for example), and facilitate the resale of excess juice back to utility companies. The new grid would also anticipate the possible widespread adoption of new technologies, such as plug-in electric cars, which could in turn reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

The major hurdles are not technical, according to Locke. "The primary challenge is coordinating the regulations, standards and incentives that govern our patchwork system of power generation," he said. And, of course, there's the issue of money.

The Obama administration has already earmarked $11 billion to federal agencies to kickstart the project. But experts say that we're probably still 20 years away from completing a full-fledged smart grid, and so it will likely cost billions more to finish.

The standards announced today are just the first step. The report is based on input from 1,500 utilities, power generation companies, high-tech firms, non-profits, and consumer groups, and identifies about 80 specific standards "where NIST believes there is sufficient consensus." But it's a massive undertaking. There are 5.4 million miles of transmission cables (enough to circle the earth more than 200 times) and about 300 major control centers and 22,000 substations across the country. Most of these facilities would have to undergo a major upgrade.