N.C. State researchers take lead in Smart Grid development

It takes up enough space to cover a billiards table, but next year it will fit inside a backpack.

The electronic contraption, only in its first generation, was named this year by experts at Massachusetts Institute of Technology as one of the 10 most important technology innovations of 2010. MIT ranked the "smart transformer," created by the FREEDM Systems Center in Raleigh, alongside recent advances in cancer genomics and synthetic cells.

The digital transformer will form the electronic guts of the vaunted Smart Grid, the automated power network that is expected to replace nation's aging mechanical power grid in the coming decade. Relying on semiconductors rather than brainless mechanisms, the device controls energy flow in both directions, managing interconnections with solar-powered rooftops and plug-in electric cars, while minimizing energy waste.

"Think of it as an Internet router for the electrical grid," said Stephen Cass, special projects editor at MIT's Technology Review . "This contribution fits into that transformational ideal in that it will enable other changes."

The solid state transformer is one of several dozen Smart Grid-related projects under way at the 3-year-old FREEDM Center, which is headquartered at N.C. State University and coordinates research among five U.S. universities. The acronym stands for Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management, a research consortium formed in 2008 with an $18.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The rising profile of the FREEDM Center is a major reason why the Triangle has come to be regarded as a national Smart Grid hub. But there also are nearly 60 local companies here involved in developing software, components, utility meters or some other aspect of the smart electricity network.

"This technology is probably five years ahead of its time," said Alex Huang, the N.C. State professor of electrical and computer engineering who directs the FREEDM Center. "We are pushing electronics into the power grid."

The Obama administration has pumped $4.5 billion nationwide into Smart Grid development in the past two years, with North Carolina companies and organizations receiving more than $600 million, more than any other state. The administration regards the Smart Grid transformation one of the nation's primary drivers for job growth, spanning manufacturing, marketing and maintenance.

Just last week, the FREEDM Center hosted an energy discussion forum for the White House Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, including Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers, General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly and U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Gary Locke.

Many of the supporters and members of the FREEDM Center collaborate on research, donate equipment and provide technical expertise. In exchange for annual membership fees, member companies have access to intellectual property developed at the center.

Utility industry stalwarts, like ABB and Eaton, are involved because they want to be in early for an opportunity to develop promising products for commercial markets.

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