While technological advances and consumer demands accelerate the pace of innovation in electric power generation, distribution and consumption, it is grid integration and public policies that ultimately will determine how rapidly and well those advances are deployed.

This was the consensus expressed by energy experts convened at the first-ever Energy Thought Summit at Research Triangle in Raleigh Nov. 12 to examine the complexities facing an electric power industry being turned on its head by rapid change.

The Economist in October declared the U.S. electricity power grid “a mind-boggling mess,” with its patchwork of providers and regulators that serve overlapping regions and each state having its own utility laws. Summit experts offered a more flattering assessment, but agreed that creating a smart, sustainable energy future will require re-imagining every aspect of how energy is produced, distributed, financed, regulated and connected to consumers.

“We have 1,500 microgrids tied in to utilities all around the country,” said Sydney Hinton, president and CEO of PowerSecure. “We have a great grid – basically a finely tuned race car that works every day…so we’re blessed to be starting with a great foundation.”

The key to a smart energy future will be getting industry competitors to collaborate and align their innovations, said energy expert Matt Zafuto.

“Ultimately, if policy comes together and utilities can align their objectives, the technology part is a much easier problem to solve,” Zafuto said.

The ETS@researchtriangle summit, co-hosted by the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster and Zpyrme, featured more than 40 industry-leading experts and a packed crowd of more than 300 attendees from business, government and academia. Five panels focused on key components required to develop and deploy the smart grid, serve customers and support innovation. A sixth panel showcased the assets, innovations and opportunities that are propelling the Research Triangle Region to global prominence in clean energy.

Keynote speakers were Robert Caldwell, Duke Energy’s senior vice president for distributed energy resources, discussing the future of distributed energy and Theirry Godart, utility segment president for Schneider Electric, describing the future and design of microgrids.

“This thing touches us all,” said John Atkins, president and CEO of O’Brien/Atkins Associates, who introduced the Grid of the Future panel.

The Research Triangle Region is a leader in smart grid, with 96 smart grid companies and 47 more that work in the closely related area of advanced transportation, particularly plug-in electric vehicles and infrastructure, Atkins said.

But companies in every industry are touched by energy innovation and a growing number in the region work in the cleantech space, he said. Atkins’ company, for instance, designs and builds energy-efficient commercial buildings.

“Our goal is to get buildings to net zero,” Atkins said. “What that means is that the buildings we as architects will be building and designing will produce their own energy and consume that energy, but in some cases will have excess energy that we can sell back to the grid.”

Atkins’ example points to a key reason smart grid development is so complex. A growing number of electricity consumers are becoming power generators, from residences with solar systems to large-scale commercial customers who build and operate their own “microgrids.” The number of consumer-producers is expected to increase dramatically in coming years.

The ability to have electric power flow back and forth, from utility to consumer and back again, requires a range of technologies to ensure the grid remains safe, reliable, secure and resilient. It also requires new economic and financial models that enable utility companies to operate profitably and provide affordable power for consumers of all kinds, those who produce power and those who do not.

For that reason, speakers in every panel noted, the integration of “distributed energy resources” – those that are produced closer to where the power is used – as well as public policies governing and incentivizing the industry will play a major role in enabling or inhibiting smart grid advances.

“We now have 5,000 distributed generators on our system, but that is a drop in the bucket when you think about all of the distributed energy resource technologies that are on the horizon and that are going to begin to penetrate, in very large numbers, our system,” said Lee Mazzocchi, senior vice president of grid solutions for Duke Energy

“I see the role of the grid as being less this one-point delivery system and much more the platform for how you take this very, very high number of very small contributors and get them to work together to create value so you have a constructive set of components for an overall energy system,” he said. “The role of the grid is around optimizing that to create value.”

The effects of public policies on clean energy advances have been clearly visible in North Carolina, said Paul Quinlan, clean tech specialist for ScottMadden Inc.

“We’ve had this long history of supporting a policy environment that promotes clean energy technologies,” he said. “It’s one reason North Carolina has become a true leader in solar energy across the country.”

Among the policies supporting clean energy growth have been the N.C. Renewable Energy Tax Credit, implemented in 1977 and set to expire at the end of 2015, which provides a 35 percent tax credit for investments in renewable energy, and the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard, which requires utilities in the state to invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency projects.

In addition, North Carolina was the first state to introduce a multi-utility voluntary green pricing program, NC Green Power, launched in 2003, that allows utility customers to purchase blocks of renewable energy, he said. And the N.C. Green Business Fund provided competitive grants from 2008-2011 to help small businesses develop clean energy projects.

Those supports have helped both existing companies and startups, Quinlan said.

“We’ve incubated a lot of the companies and products and technologies, and now the region is tremendously positioned to be able to deliver that to other parts of the Southeast, the country or the world,” he said.

U.S. Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) said in a special address that investments in clean energy research and a 21st-century energy policy are critical for the state and nation. Price pledged his commitment to pursue continued funding for smart grid research and policies that promote clean energy innovation.

“We’re especially proud of the role North Carolina State University has played,” Price said. N.C. State is home to the National Science Foundation-funded Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management (FREEDM) Systems Center, which is modernizing the electric power grid, and PowerAmerica, an institute focused on creating the next generation of power electronics manufacturing innovations.

“This research is helping our nation solve one of the most difficult challenges it faces – how to use energy efficiently and help our country achieve energy independence,” Price said. “We are in a positon in North Carolina to be at the front of the clean energy revolution.”

Editor’s note: Cyndy Falgout writes for the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster.