Renewable Energy Coming of Age - Part I

A growing number of participating companies and increasing complexity to the energy supply chain are signs that renewable energy markets are growing. Competitive countries, regions and communities are likewise emerging by aligning themselves with market opportunities and carefully nurturing cluster development. The United States is lagging in the creation of favorable market conditions and may miss the opportunity to lead the world.  
Renewable Energy and the New Energy Economy
The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) located in Golden, Colorado recognizes seven sources of renewable energy; solar, wind, bio-mass, geothermal, ocean, hydropower and hydrogen. Nascent industries, and teenagers, show maturity when they acquire the ability to recognize and describe connectivity between seemingly disparate elements. An important development for renewable energy is the growing awareness by the public, regulators and industry leaders that business sectors not directly associated with NREL’s list are actually intertwined with growth opportunities.  
The reason growth is linked to far flung industries is that renewable energy cannot achieve its full potential until electric power is used and distributed in more efficient ways. Today power is produced at centralized power plants and distributed over transmission lines and via local distribution lines to consumers. In contrast, renewable energy is often distributed-power which is produced locally. Distributed power generation is also often intermittent – available only when the wind blows or the sun shines. 
Because management of the power grid is more difficult when renewable sources are used, adoption of renewable energy on a grand scale will require a redesign of the power grid. The electric power industry is preparing to make this transformation from a centralized, producer-controlled network to one that is less centralized and more consumer-interactive. This transformation requires development of a “smarter grid.”
Movement to a smarter grid, a nationwide electric power system that allows transmission of energy and information, promises to change the industry’s entire business model and its relationship with stakeholders including regulators, energy service providers, technology and automation vendors and consumers of electric power.
A characteristic of the new energy economy is how technologies and markets are interlaced. The smart grid provides a mechanism for accommodating generation alternatives like solar, wind, and geothermal.  Smart grid also provides an opportunity for increased protection from cyber attack and will facilitate the incorporation of power storage. One power storage option gaining strength is the integration of aftermarket electric car batteries for storing distributed power from renewable sources such as solar modules on a residential rooftop. Incorporation of storage batteries on the power grid would accelerate adoption of both electric vehicles and distributed renewable energy.
The smart grid’s backbone is the digital electric meter that supports two-way communications between users and producers. Nearly 15 million smart meters are already deployed in the U.S. with over 50 million expected by 2014 and many more in subsequent years.
The prospect of more meters and a functioning smart grid network in the near term got a boost in October 2010 when the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) advised the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that it has defined five “foundational” sets of standards for Smart Grid interoperability and cyber security. These are considered essential for efficient and reliable grid operations. The standards emerged from the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007, where Congress directed NIST to coordinate development of communication protocols and other standards to achieve an interoperable smart grid.
Energy Efficiency – a Partner in the Growth of Renewable Energy
In support of an expanding smart grid and adoption of renewable energy systems are initiatives to design and manufacture efficient buildings and energy consuming devices including household appliances. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHREA) develops standards for buildings and mechanical systems. The forthcoming ASHREA 189.1 Standard for the Design of High Performance Green Buildings promotes energy savings in a number of ways including the inter-connectivity of building information systems with power supplies. 
Manufacturers are also aligning products to work with more efficient buildings and the smart grid.  General Electric (GE) is but one of many companies that are moving aggressively to develop appliances and devices that communicate with the smart grid and support the use of renewable energy. And why would companies jump at this market? GE invested $5 billion in Ecomagination, the green focused R&D program it began in 2005. Over the last five years products developed from the program generated $70 billion in revenue according to the company.  It’s not surprising then that GE announced in November 2010 they will invest another $10 billion in Ecomagination over the next five years.