March 1, 2009 in Business

Region a big player in push for smart grid

 

Spokane, we could be approaching gridlock. And that would be a good thing.

How good depends on how strong a connection government and business leaders can make between Inland Northwest companies selling “smart grid” goods, and international efforts to increase their use. The region has been a hotbed of “smart grid” technology development for more than two decades.

Itron Inc., Advantage IQ, ReliOn — all Avista Corp. spinoffs — employ hundreds in Spokane, and thousands more elsewhere in the case of Itron. Some 1,400 work for Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories in Pullman. And there are numerous smaller players making hardware and software that improves the efficiency of transmission grids from power plant to home and gives operators and consumers more ways to manage energy use.

Many of these products were ahead of their time. Despite tremendous growth, some markets for these products have barely been touched.

The coalescing of a second “smart grid” of people and policy has the potential to change that, and with it the fortunes of Spokane.

Consider these developments:

•Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Asia last month promoting green technologies.

•U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington now chairs the Energy Subcommittee of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee. Cantwell has been an ardent advocate for green technology. She could hardly be better situated to encourage smart grid implementation.

•Former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, a longtime advocate of trade relationships with China, last week was nominated Secretary of Commerce.

•Shadle Park High School graduate Griffin Thompson directs the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development & Climate, a group that includes the United States, Australia, Canada, China, India, Japan and South Korea.

Thompson was in Spokane on Feb. 19 to help the International Trade Alliance establish an alliance with the Partnership, which is trying to create a network of local leaders who want to get their communities more engaged in green technology commerce. They can do so by sharing with their international peers’ best practices in planning, promoting smart grid technology and increasing awareness of utility management programs like those at Gonzaga University and the University of Idaho.

And, yes, there’s cash involved.

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland received a $518,000 Partnership grant to help China implement better building codes. The market for smart grid components would be many times that sum.

Thompson said Chinese awareness of the technology is increasing, but they do not yet have the capacity to implement its deployment on a meaningful scale.

Spokane leaders will take the message about the area’s technological capabilities directly to the Chinese later this month, when 65 take a 10-day trip with stops in Beijing and Shanghai. Trade Alliance Executive Director Mark Peters says he already is planning a follow-up visit later this year that will also include India.

“I think we are very well-positioned,” said Peters, a former trade specialist with the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“We pretty much know there’s a high demand for the products and technology we offer,” he said.

If these trips are successful, the results would be extremely good news for an economy more and more feeling the effects of the national recession.

“Even in challenging times,” Peters says, “Spokane has something to offer the world.”

Maybe that’s not a lock, but a key.

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