By now, many people are familiar with the vision of a “smart” electrical grid and its promised improvements to our outdated national power infrastructure. Intelligently transporting, storing and managing the electricity produced by everything from nuclear power plants to rooftop solar panels can deliver enormous efficiencies that should show up in the form of lower electricity bills for consumers and businesses.
Fewer people may be aware that the Research Triangle is fast becoming the Silicon Valley of the smart grid. Energy technology companies large and small are ramping up investment in the area, attracted not only by the commercial leadership of Duke Energy and industrial automation powerhouse, ABB, but also the academic achievements of N.C. State University in smart grid research and development.
N.C. State’s FREEDM Center, selected as the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Center for Future Electric Energy Delivery and Management, is just one manifestation of the region’s growing reputation for world-class smart grid innovation and engineering talent.
Innovation and talent are crucial, because the technology required to deliver on the smart grid promise is revolutionary. High-voltage direct current power lines, solid-state silicon carbide transformers, large-scale lithium ion batteries and complex software to instantaneously direct the flow of not just electrons, but prices, across the entire system – each represents a significant leap ahead from today’s state-of-the-art.
That type of innovation does not come cheap, and because the scale of the national power grid is so vast, the cost and risk of implementing even select electrical infrastructure improvements is massive. In fact, those costs and risks have become a significant barrier to the widespread adoption of energy technologies and therefore, a constraint on the growth of the Research Triangle’s smart grid industry.
Fortunately, several leading energy technology companies in the area have found another important market for their smart grid products, ironically, “off-grid.” The off-grid energy market is largely overlooked in North America and Europe because of the availability and reliability of grid power, but nearly one-quarter of the world’s population and many of the largest industrial enterprises on the planet operate off the grid – relying mainly on generators for electricity.
Deployed military forces, ships at sea, oil and gas rigs (both on and off shore) and mining and construction operations all depend on expensive off-grid power, which can cost anywhere from 50 cents to $2 for a kilowatt hour of electricity, compared to the 3 to 15 cents we pay here at home. The high costs are driven by the expense of transporting fuel, spare parts and maintenance personnel to remote sites, and in some cases securing supply lines through hostile or criminal territories. Those costs are rising as both fuel prices and environmental regulations mount.
Where energy comes at a high premium, energy efficiency is highly valued. Off-grid industrial consumers are demanding ever-better efficiencies from their power generation and management systems, and the smart grid technologies being developed in the Research Triangle’s labs are finding immediate commercial application in off-grid energy systems.
Solar panels, power converters and lithium ion batteries originally intended for the grid, for instance, are being packaged as deployable energy systems for the military in Afghanistan, where they not only reduce costs but save lives by reducing fuel supply convoys. Similarly, oil and gas companies are incorporating battery storage into their existing power systems to cut down on fuel consumption and hazardous emissions, especially in environmentally sensitive areas.
In addition to providing early-stage revenue for emerging smart grid companies, these types of off-grid applications provide a competitive proving ground for innovative energy technologies trying to make their way to the grid. As such, the off-grid market is performing a critical function for the Research Triangle’s burgeoning smart grid industry. With continued investment and development, off-grid can lead us to the smart grid.
Josh Prueher is CEO of an energy technology startup called Earl Energy, headquartered in Hampton Roads, Va. The company is opening a research site on N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus.