Triangle is central for Smart Grid

Technology will let homeowners track and adjust energy use remotely.

Staff WriterMay 24, 2011 

The Triangle has quietly emerged as a national hub for an industry that barely existed just five years ago: Smart Grid.

The term describes the digital technology that's increasingly used to monitor and manage the movement of electricity from the power plant to the home and business.

The Triangle is home to nearly 60 companies working in various aspects of the Smart Grid industry, including 20 with national headquarters in the region, according to a study to be issued today by Duke University's Center on Globalization, Governance & Competitiveness.

Duke's report is not theonly acknowledgement of the region's Smart Grid credentials.

Wake County Economic Development this month created a recruiting brochure to draw attention to the cluster of companies here working on Smart Grid technologies.

Both Duke University and the economic development agency estimate that locally more than 3,000 people work in the industry.

"It's happening, and it's growing," said Wesley Fricks, a project manager with Wake County Economic Development.

The digital power grid is expected to replace the nation's aging mechanical grid over the next decade, giving regional Smart Grid hubs like the Triangle an economic edge in high-paying technology jobs for what will become an essential service.

According to the Duke report, the Triangle, along with Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, have the largest Smart Grid Hubs after California.

When fully developed, the Smart Grid will function like an energy Internet, allowing homeowners to track energy consumption in real time, remotely adjust thermostats through iPhones, and receive email prompts from their utilities offering rate discounts for conserving power by adjusting air conditioners.

Among the region's prominent Smart Grid developments is research in plug-in electric car technology at N.C. State University and the planned rollout of hundreds of public charging stations.

The auto industry and utilities have identified Research Triangle Park and other high-tech pockets as national magnets for early adoption of electric cars.

Local Smart Grid companies range from global energy conglomerates like ABB and Siemens, advanced utility metering companies such as Sensus and Elster, and niche companies such as Consert, a Raleigh business that lets homeowners manage their energy usage, and Truveon, a Durham energy management consulting firm.

Sensus and Elster, both based in Raleigh, employ nearly 1,000 people combined in the Triangle.

6.5% savings seen

Consert is installing the state's first two-way interactive Smart Grid network for Wake Electric Membership Corp. and the Fayetteville Public Works Commission.

The networks are expected to save participants 6.5 percent on their monthly power bills.

No one is sure when Smart Grid technology achieved the critical mass here to qualify as an industry cluster, but the field has drawn liberally on the region's abundance of engineers, scientists and programmers, some of whom lost their jobs in formerly high-flying tech companies that hit hard times.

A key development that drew attention to the region was the state winning more than $600 million in federal stimulus grants in the past two years for Smart Grid development.

North Carolina received more stimulus funds for Smart Grid work than any other state, with most of the money going to Progress Energy and Duke Energy.

NCSU also received $3.5 million to create a master's degree program in Smart Grid engineering.

Also involved in Smart Grid technology are IBM, Cisco Systems, Cree and SAS, the report says.

ABB is developing a $10 million Smart Grid Center of Excellence at its Centennial Campus office in Raleigh, where it will create a testing laboratory and demonstration center.

Momentum builds

ABB, which specializes in heavy electrical equipment and employs 1,500 statewide, employs 300 at its North American headquarters in Cary and 300 in Raleigh.

"The momentum has really picked up over the last two years," ABB spokesman Bill Rose said.

john.murawski@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8932

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