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Climbing onto the smart grid

Jul 5, 2009 - Libby Tucker - McClatchy Tribune Regional News

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: or 360-735-4553.

Updated: 2016/06/30

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