What’s the "Silicon Valley” of smart grid?

Many would argue that would be Silicon Valley. But North Carolina’s Research Triangle might just might deserve the title.

After all, the Triangle includes nearly 60 companies doing smart grid work in the region, 20 of which are headquartered there, according to a report from Duke University (PDF). Raleigh, the city at the heart of the Triangle, is home to five smart grid companies' headquarters, more than any other U.S. city except San Francisco, which has six. (That’s one reason we chose to hold our Networked Grid 2012 conference there this April.)

And while the research didn’t get specific on jobs, the report set a conservative estimate of 3,000 for the complex of smart-grid-related companies, universities and government-funded projects in the Triangle’s 13-county area. That about matches the San Francisco Bay Area’s estimated 3,030 jobs in power management, energy efficiency and grid technology firms, according to a 2011 report from the Silicon Valley Leadership Forum.

While the Silicon Valley report’s headline smart grid employment figure was 12,560 jobs, 7,450 of those were in “distributed generation,” which included many of the region’s big solar power players. Another 1,850 were in batteries and energy storage. For the sake of argument, however, let’s say Silicon Valley and the Triangle are tied on smart grid jobs. What about smart grid companies?

Silicon Valley is home to some of the industry’s best-known startups (including Silver Spring Networks, Trilliant, eMeter and Grid Net), along with giants such as Cisco, Oracle, Echelon, Intel and others that have a direct interest in smart grid.

But the Triangle can come back with its own list of hometown smart grid heroes like smart meter giants Elster and Sensus, which employ a combined 1,000 people in the region, along with companies like ABB, GE, SAS, Siemens, Cisco, Honeywell, Johnson Controls, and AT&T and Verizon with smart grid operations in the region.

Those are all companies that build lots and lots of hardened gear for utilities and power customers, which means they’re likely to provide good manufacturing jobs for the region that hosts them. Siemens made a $350 million commitment to nearby Charlotte, N.C. when it announced it would open a plant for its newest gas turbine, built to more efficiently match the ups and downs of solar and wind power to help balance the grid. 

But the companies also investing heavily in IT, both internally and via billions of dollars in acquisitions over the past several years. Itron is doubling its software development workforce in Raleigh to 400 employees. Swiss grid giant ABB has its North American headquarters near Raleigh, and this week launched its $10 million Smart Grid Center of Excellence testing lab in the city, built to put grid gear through simulated extreme weather events to see how they’ll respond.

As for government support, North Carolina brought in more than $600 million in Department of Energy smart grid stimulus grants, putting that money to work in local projects of many descriptions. Many involve Duke Energy, headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., and Progress Energy, headquartered in Raleigh. Both are big spenders on smart grid projects, from smart meters and grid sensors to complex distribution automation and management systems, such as Duke’s virtual power plant project in Charlotte.

On the smart buildings front, Cisco and Duke Energy are teaming up on the Envision Charlotte project to cut energy use at public and private buildings throughout the city. And let’s not forget, Duke’s bid to acquire Progress could create the country’s largest utility, headquartered in North Carolina, enhancing the region’s appeal to would-be smart grid suitors.

Silicon Valley will continue to claim victories in some of the cutting-edge, ARPA-E-type research going on in smart grid, of course. Local startups in inverters and power electronics (Enphase, Tigo Energy), high-efficiency power conversion materials and technology (Transphorm), and digital power management technology (Varentec) have capabilities that could lead to profound changes in the way grids operate.

In the Triangle, Raleigh’s FREEDM Systems Center is working on taking these types of new technologies to real-world testing and integration. Founded in 2008 with an $18.5 million National Science Foundation grant, the North Carolina State University-based center is doing R&D on such technologies as fast EV charging, solid-state transformers, energy storage and digital power grid controls.

Given that FREEDM stands for “Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management,” integrating renewable energy into the grid is an obvious focus of research at the center. Eventually, the organization wants to get a 1-megawatt “green energy hub” system up and running at its headquarters, both to prove the core technology and test out how third-party solar, wind, fuel cell, battery storage, and plug-in vehicle technologies works with it.