News

Climbing onto the smart grid

Jul 5 - McClatchy-Tribune Regional News - Libby Tucker The Columbian,
Vancouver, Wash.

 Southwest Washington's high-tech industry is wising up to the
 business opportunities in the smart grid -- also called the Internet
> for the electrical power grid.
>
> Many of the region's largest technology manufacturers, engineers
> and research laboratories, including Sharp and Underwriters
> Laboratories in Camas, already have invested in new products and
> services and are vying for a slice of the $4.1 billion set aside in
> the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to help build a smart grid.
> Others are brainstorming ways to enter the $6 billion market,
> estimated to grow 21 percent annually through 2014, according to
> Specialists in Business Information.
>
> "The development and deployment of smart grid will involve all of
> our tech businesses at some time," said Bart Phillips, president of
> the Columbia River Economic Development Council in Vancouver. "The
> whole knowledge base is basically in Vancouver and Portland; we're
> ground zero for smart grid here in the Northwest."
>
> Bringing the nation's aging electrical grid into the information
> age will require overlaying the existing grid with a digital
> communications system that includes sensors, controls and wireless
> devices. Such systems, proponents say, will give utilities more
> precise control over power production and distribution that in turn
> creates energy savings, increases power quality and reliability, and
> allows more renewable energy sources to come online. Consumers will
> also gain more control over their energy costs through flexible
> utility rates and in-home monitoring devices a smart grid would allow.
>
> The opportunity for Clark County tech companies is big. Every
> gadget that enables the smart grid will need a computer chip or
> microprocessor to build communication links from power plants to
> transmission lines all the way into homes and businesses. With some
> 340 high-tech companies here, and regional research and thought
> leaders such as Pacific Northwest National Laboratories, Bonneville
> Power Administration, and Intel Corp., the region has the expertise to
> take advantage of an emerging market that blends communications and
> computing.
>
> "Most companies involved with Internet technologies have an
> opportunity with the smart grid," said Steve Jennings, chief marketing
> officer of BPL Global, a smart grid technology company that owns
> Hillsboro, Ore.-based Serveron. "This is just getting started; it's a
> long-term trend and market opportunity with the federal funding being
> a large catalyst."
>
> Vancouver brain trust
>
> Silicon Forest Electronics, which assembles circuit boards and
> other high-tech equipment for the defense, aerospace and medical
> equipment industries at its Vancouver facility, is one local company
> starting to explore the smart grid market. It would be "easy" for the
> manufacturer of air-to-ground communications for fighter jets to adapt
> its production process for smart grid communications, for example,
> said Jay Schmidt, sales and marketing manager for Silicon Forest
> Electronics.
>
> "We like the idea of diversifying our market," Schmidt said. "And
> smart grid is a growth industry."
>
> Underwriters Laboratories, a Chicago-based product testing and
> safety certification company that employs 400 workers in Camas, has
> already stepped into the market testing smart meters, devices
> predicted to eventually replace standard electrical meters in every
> U.S. home and business.
> And the
> company is working with utilities, regulators and other stakeholders
> to develop new performance requirements for a range of smart devices,
> said Clyde Kofman, senior vice president of commercial operations for
> UL in the Internet. The company is also designing sensors for smart
> appliances, such as a computer that senses motion and shuts down when
> a person isn't present.
> Sharp plans to eventually include such "grid-aware" and energy
> management capabilities in all of its consumer appliances and much of
> that design work will happen locally, said Carl Mansfield, senior
> manager of energy systems at nearby Sharp Laboratories.
>
> Over the long term, Sharp Laboratories is engineering the
> company's solar photovoltaic systems to talk to the electric grid. As
> electrical generation moves away from central power plants and toward
> distributed resources such as solar panels, power supplies will become
> harder for utilities to manage. Smart solar panels would allow
> coordination of energy generated on hundreds of rooftops to help
> supplement electricity from traditional power plants when electricity
> is in high demand.
>
> Entry point
>
> Despite the large potential market for smart grid technologies,
> utilities and high-tech companies are still waiting to rollout new
> products and services until it's clear such investments are cost
> effective.
> Some
> technologies such as advanced metering are easy to justify, said Rob
> Pratt, energy and environment director at Pacific Northwest National
> Laboratories, in an e-mail. But prices will need to come down before
> companies will invest in smart grid technologies related to
> distributed generation and energy storage, he said.
>
> "The business case for the smart grid as a whole has not been
> unequivocally made to everyone's satisfaction," said Pratt.
>
> Most of the technology needed to build a smart grid already
> exists in the Internet technology and telecommunications industries,
> but much more sophisticated tinkering remains to make those gadgets
> and systems work with old electrical infrastructure and new utility
> applications.
>
> Some private companies and small demonstration projects have
> already created their own customized smart grid solutions, but no
> national standards yet exist that would make the technology easy to
> adopt on a large scale, said Linda Rankin, a smart grid consultant and
> former principal engineer at Intel.
>
> The National Institute of Standards and Technology has a federal
> mandate to develop initial standards for smart grid technology by this
> fall.
> In the meantime, companies and utilities will test the technology,
> which is one reason the U.S. Department of Energy will dole out $615
> million in matching funds for smart grid demonstration projects under
> the recovery act.
> Applications for funding are due Aug. 26.
>
> One demonstration project proposal being developed by the
> Bonneville Power Administration could provide a multimillion-dollar
> opportunity for local companies to kick-start their smart grid
> efforts. Sharp and BPL Global are among the dozens of high-tech
> companies in the Portland- Vancouver metro region that have submitted
> proposals to participate in a BPA project.
>
> Participation would allow Sharp to test its prototype devices
> without a large, expensive rollout, said Mansfield. And if the project
> is successful, the company will gain a stronger foothold in the
> national market, he said.
>
> Libby Tucker: libby.tucker@columbian.com or 360-735-4553.
>
>