Nurturing a smarter electric grid

May 28, 2011 

Smart grid is the idea of turning the electric power network into an "energy Internet," sending electricity, as well as information, back and forth between utilities and consumers. By harnessing two-way communication and automation, and responding to vast quantities of data, smart grid will make the antiquated U.S. electric grid more efficient and reliable. It will also make solar and wind power more viable, by keeping power steady when it's not sunny or windy.

Put another way, smart grid is a chance for our region to modernize the grid, save energy and create local jobs.

It's hard to exaggerate the size of this market. In the next 10 years, China alone will likely invest $100 billion in smart grid. Experts estimate that a full-blown U.S. smart grid would require an investment of up to $480 billion through 2030. Many a smart firm is rushing to sell the needed technologies - hardware from smart meters to advanced transmission equipment, software for managing and integrating systems, and a profusion of services that didn't exist even a year or two ago.

Recently our research team mapped out 125 leading U.S. smart grid firms, and we found a startling number in North Carolina (only California had substantially more). So we looked harder. Zeroing in on the 13-county Research Triangle, we were amazed to find 60 smart grid firms, ranging from power multinationals (ABB, GE, Siemens) to IT titans (Cisco, IBM) to energy giants (Honeywell, Johnson Controls) to small specialty ventures (GRIDiant, Plotwatt). As we note in our report, "Smart Grid: Core Firms in the Research Triangle Region, NC," these Triangle firms already employ an estimated 3,000 local people.

An example of how fast this industry is growing is ABB. Recently named the Cleantech company of the year (thanks mainly to smart grid), the firm is investing $10 million in a Center of Excellence at N.C. State University and $100 million in a new high-voltage DC cable facility near Charlotte. With 120,000 employees worldwide, ABB is adding more jobs on this continent than in China or India, and a substantial portion will be in the Triangle - which recently became ABB's corporate headquarters for North America.

It's not just our smart companies that set the Triangle apart, but also our three major research universities, along with their engineering programs and centers for commercializing inventions. Case in point: a smart power transformer being developed by students and faculty at N.C. State's FREEDM Systems Center. This local invention is specially designed to quickly recharge electric vehicles and hook up solar and wind power reliably with the grid. Recently it turned up on MIT's 2011 list of the world's 10 most important emerging technologies.

But the Triangle's smart grid opportunity goes beyond inventing and manufacturing smart grid technologies and selling them to the world. We could also be a leader in implementing them here.

Progress Energy and Duke Energy are investing more than $1 billion in smart grid across the states they serve. Perhaps when they complete their merger, creating the nation's largest utility, their 7.1 million customer base will put even more smart technologies to work.

North Carolina is certainly the right state for smart grid leadership. We were the first in the South to require electric power providers to get a share of their energy from renewable sources. A bill in the General Assembly, if passed, would provide tax credits to innovators who develop smart grid technologies.

These initiatives, along with our region's extraordinary clustering of cutting-edge firms, could be just the beginning of something big for North Carolina. Imagine if our state and new utility resolved to be the national leader in smart grid, renewable energy and integrating electric vehicles into the power system - all while attracting innovative business and local jobs.

Now that would truly be, as our neighbors at Wake County Economic Development like to say, smarter all around.

Marcy Lowe is a senior research analyst at Duke University's Center on Globalization, Governance & Competitiveness. Research for "Smart Grid: Core Firms in the Research Triangle Region" was funded by N.C. State University's Institute for Emerging Issues faculty fellows program.

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