News

Research Triangle Region’s Smart Grid Assets Power High-potential Growth Industry


July 5, 2011

Research Triangle Region, N.C. – Experts at MIT in June ranked an invention created at N.C. State University one of the 10 most important technology innovations of 2010.

The digital transformer developed by researchers at the FREEDM Systems Center at N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus is expected to become the electronic heart of the nation’s future “smart grid.”

It is the latest spotlight shown on the Research Triangle Region’s emerging smart grid cluster – a dense and rapidly expanding concentration of companies, technologies, researchers and support services that are making the region a hotspot for this important emerging industry.

The work under way at the National Science Foundation-funded FREEDM Systems Center prompted business leaders from the White House Council on Jobs and Competitiveness to tour the facility in June and participate in a forum with other national and local energy and smart grid executives that coincided with President Obama's visit to North Carolina.

“Smart grid innovation will change this nation, and the Research Triangle Region is strongly positioned to lead the way,” said Charles A. Hayes, president and CEO of the Research Triangle Regional Partnership, which leads economic development for the 13-county Research Triangle Region of North Carolina. “This transformation holds enormous economic potential for us and we are taking strategic steps to capture it.”

Critical mass of assets

Smart grid refers to the transformation of the electric power system into an “energy Internet,” providing a two-way system for sending and receiving electricity and data. The current grid generally supports one-way movement of electricity and limited data capability. This fundamental change in the way the grid works brings with it new and exciting economic development opportunities.

Replacing the nation’s outdated power grid with a smart grid could create a more reliable, efficient and lower environmental impact power system. It could also open the door for an explosion of innovation in alternative energy development and use that could mirror the seismic shift in information-sharing technology and economic opportunity that resulted from the Internet.

However, disruptive technology in any industry can often take 10 years to make a real impact through market penetration. The heavily regulated electricity industry presents an even greater challenge than most industries for commercialization of new technologies. The challenge is to advance the adoption curve and spawn new companies that will create new jobs and career paths for regional workers and graduates as well as advance the practice of sustainability.
The Research Triangle Region’s economic development strategy calls for leveraging the enormous economic opportunity smart grid transformation represents and the critical mass of regional assets already focused on this work to promote innovation, economic opportunity, new companies and new jobs for decades to come.

A May report produced by Duke University’s Center on Globalization, Governance & Competitiveness for the Institute for Emerging Issues and RTRP quantified the region’s current smart grid assets. Among them:

  • Nearly 60 core smart grid firms and more than 100 locations engaged in developing or manufacturing relevant hardware, developing software or providing related services. They include multinationals in power systems (ABB, GE, Siemens), information technology (Cisco, IBM), and energy services (Honeywell, Johnson Controls), and small specialty ventures (GRIDiant, Plotwatt). Combined, these companies employ an estimated 3,000 people working on smart grid technologies.

  • Firms that span the entire smart grid value chain in each of eight smart grid technology categories identified by the International Energy Agency. The highest number works in information and communications technology integration followed by building energy management and advanced metering infrastructure. Forty-four of 59 firms focus on software and/or services. More than 500 companies across the state are engaged in energy efficiency and renewable energy. The state also boasts a strong position in areas of likely future investment, particularly distribution grid management, transmission enhancement and information technology/ communications integration. 

  • Specialized R&D centers, such as the FREEDM (which stands for Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management) Center, and expertise from the region’s three Tier I research universities, nine other colleges and universities and seven community colleges. Several university centers provide targeted support for commercializing student and faculty inventions and stimulating entrepreneurship, which promotes commercialization of innovations produced in the sector.

  • Embrace of electric vehicles. The Research Triangle Region is a partner in Project Get Ready, a national effort to prepare cities for plug-in electric vehicles. Raleigh has already become a leader in facilitating EV-charging stations by creating a permitting and inspection process that can be completed in as few as two days. Raleigh-based Progress Energy is working on infrastructure and financial incentives for EV adoption and is including plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles in its utility fleet. The U.S. supply chain for the advanced batteries that go into electric vehicles encompasses several important North Carolina firms, including global leaders such as Celgard (20-30% share of the global market for separators), Chemetall and FMC (together supplying nearly 50 percent of the world’s demand for lithium).

  • One of the world’s largest microgrids located at nearby Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, which boasts its own distribution system and supplements utility power with on-site generation. A number of smart features make the microgrid a useful test case and proving ground for emerging smart grid projects.

  • Supportive government and nonprofit agencies. North Carolina is one of 29 states (and the District of Columbia) with a renewable portfolio standard requiring a percentage share of an electric provider’s energy sales to come from renewable sources, providing a potential market for relevant smart grid technologies. The North Carolina Solar Center manages the national database of incentives and policies for energy efficiency and renewable energy. The nonprofit Advanced Energy conducts cutting-edge research on energy efficiency and electric transportation. Both are located in the region.

Coordinated regional effort

Economic and business-creation opportunities in the sector lie not only in inventing, manufacturing and selling smart grid technologies to the world but also applying them at home. For instance, the merger of Duke Energy and Progress Energy, creating the nation’s largest investor-owned utility, may offer economies of scale that can facilitate smart grid deployment.

“Progress Energy and Duke Energy, being headquartered here, were the driving force behind the state of North Carolina becoming the largest recipient in the country of investment grant funding for smart grid,” said Wade Fulghum, assistant director economic development partnership at N.C. State. “Moving forward, we as a state must continually work to find ways to stimulate and incentivize utility investment into the smart grid in North Carolina so that our pace of deployment matches the pace of our research and innovation. This will lead to new possibilities for employment and provide the economic development engine we are looking for. “

Leveraging this innovation opportunity for economic benefit will require targeted policy support to promote private investment in smart grid as well as regulatory reform and fundamental changes in the electricity sector’s prevailing business model, which incentivizes utilities to generate and sell less energy, thereby encouraging conservation and reducing the environmental impact of energy generation

RTRP is collaborating with a wide network of North Carolina institutions that are actively supporting smart grid development. These partners are working to promote the sector’s growth, first by identifying the many companies, organizations and assets already focused on this sector, then working to align their efforts, support their work and growth, and promote the region as an international leader in smart grid innovation.

RTRP also facilitates international collaboration through membership in the International Cleantech Network, which connects the region’s innovation-leading companies with an exclusive network of like-minded clusters around the world, ensuring that regional companies have the network needed to keep their competitive edge. These international connections also provide a bridge to foreign direct investment, where deployment of these technologies may not meet barriers in policy infrastructure.

“The Research Triangle Region's Cleantech Cluster is leading the way with a critical mass of researchers, companies and a range of support organizations that are accelerating economic and technological growth in smart grid,” said Lee Anne B. Nance, RTRP senior vice president for strategic initiatives.

“The smart grid will transform the power industry in a similar way that the Internet transformed the computer industry from the mainframe computer paradigm to the distributed computing we have today,” she said. “Such a paradigm shift will be accompanied by massive innovation in electrification of transportation and clean-energy technologies and will leverage our strength in information technologies. And this transformation will occur in the Research Triangle Region.”

For more information on the region’s smart grid assets, contact Lee Anne B. Nance (919) 840-7372, ext 15 or lnance@researchtriangle.org or download the report at http://www.researchtriangle.org/elements/media/publications/Smart_Grid_Core_Firms_in_the_Research_Triangle_Region_NC.pdf.

RTRP is the public-private organization that leads economic development for the Research Triangle Region of North Carolina, home to The Research Triangle Park and the 13 north-central N.C. counties of Chatham, Durham, Franklin, Granville, Harnett, Johnston, Lee, Moore, Orange, Person, Vance, Wake and Warren. For more information, visit www.researchtriangle.org.