Smart-Grid Companies in 'Feeding Frenzy' Over Stimulus

President Barack Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package has put cleantech companies in “a feeding frenzy,” says Jesse Berst, managing director of research firm Global Smart Energy. He recently told us that lobbying has become “intense” as utilities and technology vendors form partnerships and coalitions to better position themselves to get a bite of the funds.

He cites one company that has even created a stimulus menu, with pricing based on the anticipated stimulus grants. “It says you can get 10,000 of these or 5,000 of these, and these options will create X number of jobs,” he says.

You can expect more to come. “There’s going to be a real PR war, because for every pot of money out there, people are going to try to label themselves [as being eligible for it],” Berst says. Aside from the $11 billion set aside specifically for “smart grid” technologies, some of those companies may also be eligible to vie for billions in weatherization funds, as well as $500 million slated for green jobs.

But the package has shined a spotlight on smart-grid technologies that is far brighter than the money alone, Berst says. “It made people realize that here is the next place to be,” he says. “It’s really stimulating this far beyond the value of the money … even before a single dollar’s been spent.” As companies form partnerships and propose projects to take advantage of these funds, some are likely to happen whether or not they get the money, Berst says.

So far, information about how to apply for funds has been scarce, says Susan Preston, general partner for the CalCEF Clean Energy Angel Fund. As more government money comes to the table, companies could find themselves spending more time and money chasing it, she says. Aside from the stimulus package, companies could be eligible for many other types of federal and state funding, and the California Clean Energy Fund is planning a program on how to tap into it, Preston says.

As for the stimulus, one big question yet to be determined is how the government will define “smart grid.” “How far do you expand out the definition of smart grid?” Preston asked. “It can get pretty big. If you’re trying to target grant money, you would like the definition to be as expansive as possible, depending on what you’re doing,” she says.

Preston says she would include technologies that improve transmission and that use power more efficiently, such as advanced sensors and meters, energy-management software for both the grid and for individual households and energy storage that could help make wind energy, for example, available when it is needed. Berst said other technologies that could be included might be technologies that shift the times that appliances use energy, so that — for instance — your water heater might start up before the morning peak and store hot water until you need it for your shower. (Berst is moderating the Power 2.0 panel at our Green:Net conference in San Francisco on March 24).