Silicon Valley has traditionally been the epicenter of American smart grid technology innovation, but a new report suggests North Carolina’s Research Triangle may deserve the title and be key to the industry’s economic future.
Duke University’s “Core Firms in the Research Triangle Region” report highlights a smart grid industry thriving thousands of miles away from Silicon Valley. At least 60 companies are working on smart grid technology and implementation in the region, with a conservative estimate of 3,000 employees at 101 locations in the 13-country Triangle region.
That figure is roughly the same as the Bay Area’s estimated 3,030 smart grid jobs, and does not include IBM’s 10,000 regional employees, many of whom are focused on smart grid technology through the company’s “Smarter Planet” initiative.
Beyond the sheer number of employees, the Triangle also favorably compares in the number of companies headquartered in the region. Five companies have headquarters in the Triangle — more than any other region beyond San Francisco — including ABB, Sensus, Consert, Elster, and Tanatalus.
The Triangle’s contributions to smart grid innovations are also hard to ignore. ABB recently opened its $10 million Smart Grid Center of Excellence in Raleigh. The demonstration center is designed to test new systems that improve utility responses to power outages and simulate how severe weather affects grid reliability.
North Carolina State University’s $18.5 million Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management (FREEDM) System Center is working on new fast electric vehicle charging infrastructure, grid management systems, energy storage technology, and digital power grid controls. In time, the center aims to develop a 1-megawatt “green energy hub” demonstrating how to integrate distributed renewables with energy storage, plug-in vehicle, and grid technologies.
Utilities in the Triangle may also spell long-term business success for smart grid companies. Progress Energy and Duke Energy are currently in the middle of a $26 billion merger that if successful, would create the nation’s largest utility and vast economies of scale for smart grid technology.
The two companies received much of North Carolina’s $600 million in smart grid stimulus grants from the U.S. Department of Energy. Duke is currently testing a “virtual power plant” combining solar power and battery storage, and Progress Energy has several ongoing smart grid initiatives.
However, the report cautions targeted government policy support will be required to make the most of the Research Triangle’s smart grid opportunity. Several specific policies are recommended, including regulatory reform, incentivizing utilities toward efficiency instead of overall sales, creating an environment that attracts private investment, and proper consumer education.
With a total estimated North American smart grid market value of $57 billion by 2016, policy change today could lead to a high-tech sustainable economy tomorrow.
Silvio is Principal at Marcacci Communications, a full-service clean energy public relations company based in Washington, D.C.