Smart Grid in China

From Institutional Investor:

Investors Want to Plug Into China’s Smart-Grid Market

01 Apr 2010
Xiang Ji

Beijing’s massive conversion to a smart power grid could just one-up the rest of the world. Savvy entrepreneurs and investors are looking to get a piece of the green action.

When Beijing announced a $585 billion stimulus package in November 2008, Jeffrey Kang spotted an opportunity. The package’s vast investment mandates included one aimed at upgrading the country’s electricity distribution system to a smart grid that would use high-tech meters to precisely match supply with demand in households and offices. The energy savings would be an obvious boon for the planet — but savvy entrepreneurs and investors like Kang also wanted a piece of the green action.

China Electricity Council, a national power industry association, estimates that total spending on the smart grid will hit $40 billion by 2011, although the entire project likely won’t be completed until 2020. An estimated 300 million old electricity meters are to be replaced by smart meters that encourage lower energy use by displaying usage prominently. The meters can also track household energy patterns and adjust distribution accordingly.

The whole smart-grid system — comprising ultrahigh-voltage transmission lines, sensors and smart meters, all connected through computer networks — enhances energy efficiency not only by matching supply and demand, but also by more efficiently managing intermittent renewable energy sources.

Entrepreneurs and investors see great prospects in the conversion to a smart grid. Kang, who is CEO of Nasdaq-listed, Shenzhen-based module supplier Cogo Group, signed a deal in April 2009 to acquire China’s Mega Smart Group, a supplier of parts for smart-meter makers. Kang estimates the deal will generate $20 million in sales in the first year, or about 7 percent of Cogo’s total revenue. And that’s only the start. “Smart meters will be a key driver in our growth going forward,” says Kang. Just last month Yale University said it had invested in Redwood City, California’s Silver Spring Networks, a smart-meter manufacturer planning an IPO in 2010.

SBI Energy, a Rockville, Maryland–based market research firm, forecasts that the smart-grid market will grow from $90 billion in 2009 to $171 billion in 2014. SBI says government and corporate mandates to convert to climate-friendly energy systems will drive the boom.

Vinod Khosla, founder of Khosla Ventures, a Menlo Park, California–based venture capital firm, predicts that the world’s electricity grid will eventually be set up “so that smart transformers are feeding information to smart way stations and talking to smart meters.” VC firms’ interest in smart grids emerged only recently, with investments as of last year totaling $414 million. By contrast, solar power has attracted $1.2 billion of VC funds, according to consulting firm Cleantech Group.

London-based VC firm WHEB Ventures not long ago made a capital injection of an undisclosed sum in PassivSystems, a Berkshire, U.K., company that makes energy management systems that fit into smart grids. “Though it’s still in early stages, smart grid represents a potentially vast global market,” says Megan Bingham-Walker, an associate at WHEB Ventures, which manages £114 million ($170.2 million). President Barack Obama last October granted $3.4 billion in stimulus money to develop smart-grid technology and install upgraded meters in the U.S.; utilities are to match these funds. Europe, meanwhile, has mandated that 20 percent of its energy must come from renewable sources by 2020.

Still, investors looking to plug directly into the smart-grid market may find it difficult to do so. For instance, Robert Metcalfe, a partner at Polaris Venture Partners, a $3 billion, Waltham, Massachusetts–based private equity firm, has been screening energy-management software developers but has yet to write a check. “One of the challenges is that there is no standard to root for, making it hard to recognize the winner,” he laments.

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