Washington Is “Well Behind” Other States in Cleantech, but Gaining in Smart Grid, Efficiency

3/11/09Follow @gthuang

“If you’re a technology junkie, cleantech is the candy store for you,” said Byron McCann, co-founder and managing partner of Seattle-based Ascent Partners, an investment bank that advises cleantech and software entrepreneurs. McCann, who also serves on the board of the Northwest Energy Angels, was talking about his own transition from software to energy, and about his fascination with the complexities of cleantech. “Three years ago, I was doing some research, and the whole cleantech industry was starting to take off,” he said. “Now it’s on fire.”

McCann moderated a breakfast panel yesterday entitled “Harnessing IT for Energy.” Organized by the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA), the goal of the Seattle event was to stimulate discussion about the strengths of Washington state in software and energy distribution, and how they can be used to further innovation in cleantech. “We felt there was a huge opportunity for our state to become a leader in the convergence of IT and energy,” said Ken Myer, the chief executive of WTIA, in his opening remarks.

There are certainly some serious opportunities to consider. McCann noted that the state’s allocation of federal stimulus funding for energy transmission is projected to come to $574 million for energy efficiency, with another $1.5 billion going to smart-grid technologies (figures quoted from Climate Solutions, a Northwest nonprofit). He also pointed to financial industry surveys (as recent as November) that indicate cleantech and life sciences have the “highest potential for stability and growth.”

“The big issue for me is, this whole opportunity is not lost on the rest of the world,” McCann said. “If we win here, the stakes are huge. They’re bigger than information technology. The energy industry is the biggest on the planet.”

With that, he turned the discussion over to a distinguished panel, made up of Randy Berry, managing director at Areva T&D, a French smart-grid firm with operations in Redmond, WA; Jim Kensok, vice president and chief information officer of Spokane, WA-based utility company Avista; Marc Cummings, director of public affairs at Battelle’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Richland, WA; and Michael Butler, chairman and CEO of Cascadia Capital in Seattle. They hit on some key progress being made in energy efficiency and smart grid systems, as well as what Washington still needs to do to create a cleantech hub—all from the complementary viewpoints of technologists, utilities, policy, and finance.

Here are a few key takeaways from each panelist:

Randy Berry of Areva T&D, a computer scientist by training, clarified that a “smarter” grid means more efficient, reliable, and environmentally friendly energy transmission and management. The problem is no longer just getting electricity from A to B. “Flows are all changing—it’s any direction on the grid,” he said, in part because of the addition of renewable sources like wind and solar. “It requires a lot of technology.” Berry said he has challenged his team to be able to display in a control center, … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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