9 more startups charging the Super Grid

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The super grid, the focus of this week’s GreenBeat 2010 conference, isn’t just the domain of huge companies like GE and Cisco. The opportunities to create a clean, self-healing energy network, dynamically integrate renewable energy and local power sources, and automatically lower electricity demand are so big that startups are finding numerous niches to exploit. Besides the 10 startups presenting at GreenBeat’s Innovation Competition, here are nine more worth watching.

Ice Energy provides distributed energy storage for air-conditioning systems. Air conditioning consumes a massive amount of energy and is mostly used during the day when electricity prices are at their peak. Ice Energy’s system is embedded into the air conditioner where it uses low-cost energy at night to produce ice. The stored ice reduces the amount of power needed to keep the building cool during the day. According to the company, peak energy demand can drop by as much as 95 percent. The company recently received a new investment of $24 million and seems destined for great things once the weather heats up.

AlertMe is a home energy system that combines a meter reader clipped on to your “non-smart” meter, smart plugs to control devices individually, a communications hub, and a dashboard so you can track electricity usage. The UK-based company has started doing big deals with utilities like British Gas, which also owns a stake in the company. One of AlertMe’s advantages over other home energy systems is that it is relatively cheap at £29.99 ($34) for an install kit and an annual fee of £19.90 ($22.80). One of AlertMe’s latest demonstrations switched electrical appliances on and off automatically in response to the presence of a mobile phone, on the assumption that if the phone isn’t there, neither are you.

Chip designer Accent aims to create the “best-in-class” system on a chip for smart meters and smart appliances. The formerly general-purpose chip design house only announced its decision to focus on smart grid technology earlier this year but has already snagged a couple of big meter vendors in the US and China. Smart meters need to communicate with other devices and the utility. Accent’s flagship product ASMGrid can communicate via the Zigbee standard (for the US market) and powerline communications (for Chinese and European meters) and includes all the processing power any smart meter could need. The company just announced new funding of 5 million euros (almost $7 million) to expand its smart grid technology offerings.

Powertagging applies data tagging techniques to the power grid via encrypted digital “tags” that are attached to grid devices. The tags can be used to monitor the power these devices consume, produce, or conduct, thereby providing a real-time “map” of the grid’s configuration and operational status. Power Tagging also allows the grid operator to remotely control individual devices or groups of devices. The company claims that utilities can save 4 to 7 percent of total power produced by using the real-time information from the tags to help keep voltage stable. The tagging technology impressed Dominion Resources, a Virginia-based utility, sufficiently to convince it to invest $3 million in the company.

PowerSense is a spinoff company from the unfortunately named, pan-European utility Dong Energy. It produces fiber-optic sensing technology. The sensing infrastructure was originally developed in-house by Dong for medium and low-voltage power lines since the utility could not find a suitable solution available commercially. The sensors provide the grid operator with information about load currents, power levels, voltage quality, disturbances in the grid and distance to faults. With this data, the grid operator can avoid or shorten outages and achieve better fault management.

Petra Solar has come up with a novel location for solar panels: utility poles. The company will be installing its 200 watt panels on 200,000 utility poles in New Jersey, which will generate a total of 40 megawatts of power. This is enough energy to power 40,000 homes. Petra Solar’s panels deliver power directly to the grid and have built-in communications for monitoring and configuration. The company received $40 million in funding in 2010.

Viridity Energy transforms large energy consumers like college campuses,  factories and hospitals into virtual power plants. Utilities have long worked with large power users as part of demand response programs (where a site reduces power usage when there is a surge in demand on the grid). Viridity works with customers to figure out how to curtail energy use and rely on off-grid generation when prices are high. The company’s software also “sells” energy usage reductions, energy storage and local generation capabilities back to utilities in wholesale power markets. Viridity Energy recently announced a project with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transport Authority to recycle the energy created when trains and trolleys brake at a high-use substation in Philadelphia.

SolarBridge is a solar microinverter company. Microinverters convert the DC current produced by solar panels into the AC current required by the grid. They also allow each panel to operate independently, rather than in a series, thereby increasing power production by 5-25 percent. SolarBridge claims a 20 percent improvement over competitive products. The company mainly targets the residential and small business market. From all the companies in the red-hot microinverter market, we picked SolarBridge since it is a young company rapidly partnering with solar panel makers and already offering a 25-year warranty on a panel-microinverter combination. That’s confidence.

Lighting consumes 25 percent of the total power used in commercial buildings, according to the DOE’s Buildings Energy Data Book. Lighting is also generally not automated. Enter Adura with its wireless mesh platform to control lighting at a fine-grained level. No longer will a whole floor be lighted when only a few lights are needed. Using wireless connectivity means that a retrofit is not required to add new wiring. The company claims savings of up to 72 percent without denting productivity. Adura landed $12 million in new funding earlier this year.

GreenBeat 2010Are you a green executive or entrepreneur? If so, sign up now for GreenBeat 2010 — the year’s seminal conference on the smart grid — November 3-4 at Stanford University. World leaders in smart grid initiatives will debate how the new “Super Grid” is creating huge opportunities in cars, energy storage, and renewables. GreenBeat 2010 is hosted by VentureBeat and SSE Labs of Stanford University. Go here for full conference details and to apply for the 2010 Innovation Competition.