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Companies to watch: Electric power producers and efficiency

Utilities are at the forefront of energy efficiency and smart-grid technology deployment--and when it comes to plug-in hybrids, the grid had better be modernized.

For Earth Day 2008, CNET green tech reporters selected leading companies in five different clean technology categories. Here are the ones in the electricity business to watch.

It's hard to think of an electric utility as a real mover and a shaker. Most plod along, keeping the lights on, sending the bills out, and delivering dividends to shareholders.

But there are some exceptions and, as new energy technologies come online, power providers are on the front lines of clean tech. Which are worth calling out?

Pacific Gas & Electric
PG&E is at the forefront of technology adoption in renewable energy and plug-in hybrid programs. California has perhaps the most stringent set of mandates for renewable power in the U.S. and the most aggressive carbon emissions goals.

Of course, PG&E is not sitting on mountains of coal as many other utilities like Duke Energy are, so it can afford to push for policies that favor cleaner fuels.

Earth Day 2008
Click here to see all of's Earth Day 2008 stories, photo galleries, and more.

But California is an important testing ground where solar thermal and other energy technologies will be put through the paces on the way to commercialization. Special mention goes to Austin Energy, the municipal power utility in Austin, Texas, which has a green building program among many others. It, too, appears willing to try new technologies.

Tech enthusiasts tend to believe that higher solar cell efficiency is the key to making solar electricity mainstream. It's not. Financing is.

SunEdison caters to businesses which establish a power purchasing agreement. Here's how it works: a provider like SunEdison or MMA Renewables installs, owns, and maintains panels at their customers' locations, and the customers purchase the electricity their rooftop panels produce at a fixed cost.

A number of start-ups, including SolarCity and Sun Run, are pursuing the model of essentially leasing panels to residential customers as well. If they don't get it right, somebody eventually will.

Some people call energy efficiency the "fifth fuel" along with coal, natural gas, nuclear, and renewables. EnerNoc is one of a handful of new companies in the demand response area, along with ConsumerPowerline, Powerit, and Comverge.

What these companies do on behalf of utilities is dial down power consumption at homes or businesses to ease the demand on the grid. Cutting down just a little--15 minutes of dimming the lights at Home Depot, for example--can prevent the grid from crashing and, potentially, obviate the need to build more power plants.

Everyone agrees that the grid needs to get smarter and join the 21st century. Not simply for reliability but to meet demand growth.

GridPoint makes a device that lets utilities dial down usage remotely in people's homes. It just completed a "smart charging" test with Duke Energy that let people charge plug-in hybrid electric cars at night, after demand on the grid peaks.

Advanced metering and energy monitoring companies, including Silver Spring Networks, SmartSynch, and Fat Spaniel Technologies, are at the forefront of applying IT to the electricity grid. Verdiem, meanwhile, is focused specifically on PC power management.