Peter Wells, CEO of energy technology company Smart Wires, believes his business is poised for serious growth in the years to come.
But that growth, according to Wells, would have been difficult to manage in the San Francisco area, where the company has been based since its inception in 2010.
Last week, Smart Wires, which manufactures technology to efficiently manage energy in power grids, announced it was moving its Bay Area headquarters to Durham. It’s a move that will ultimately create some 250 jobs at the Triangle, and North Carolina has offered the company a $ 2.8 million incentive program to make it happen.
In an interview with The News & Observer, Wells said the decision was about access to talent. In California, he said, competition between companies has grown fierce and the cost of living keeps entry-level employees away.
“It’s a little harder to find (and) dear people when you do,” Wells said in a Zoom interview.
And due to the nature of their business, which is designing technologies for power grids, the business often hires highly skilled electrical engineers, many of whom have doctorates. And other companies and industries have constantly tried to pull them off.
“The talent was sort of being harvested by other industries that maybe paying a lot more money than you might see in energy,” Wells said. “It was a challenge.”
As the company was poised to accelerate its growth in the coming months, Wells believed it was time to move the corporate headquarters. And as the company’s lease expires at the end of the year, it has started a nationwide search.
Smart Wires ended up narrowing its search to five cities, Well said, including Austin, Atlanta, Denver, the Triangle and its existing location in Union City, California.
The Triangle, Wells said, had the best overall score in its analysis thanks to its cost of living, existing energy technology companies and local universities.
“There are other (power) companies here, like Hitachi ABB,” Wells noted. And “NC State is doing very well in this area. Duke has a very good electrical engineering program. There are other colleges around, and Georgia Tech is not that far. I mean there is a lot going on in the area.
It’s also – at least for now – reasonably priced, Wells said, especially compared to places like Boulder, Colorado and Austin.
“The cost of living and housing is clearly increasing (in the Triangle),” he said, “because companies are coming in and investing… but there is still a long way to go before they reach” the levels Californians.
Wells knows the Triangle well, although a lot has changed since he was last there. He worked at the GE plant in Wilmington between 2003 and 2010, and visited Raleigh often. Since then, he said, the area’s cultural amenities, from bars and restaurants to music and cafes, have improved dramatically.
The company hopes to open its research and development lab in Durham later this year. It is currently targeting space in southern County Durham, near Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
Some of the company’s 140 or so employees will relocate to the Triangle, but most of them will either stay in California or work remotely. About 40% of the company’s employees work abroad.
Currently, approximately 15% of Smart Wires’ business is located in the United States. The company is very active in South America, the UK and Australia, where countries are really investing in efforts to modernize their power grids, Wells said.
But Wells believes the US market could be an important area of growth in the years to come, as investment picks up in wind and solar power. Smart Wires technology helps utility providers connect their grids to wind turbines and solar panel farms and helps them efficiently manage the energy that results from them.
Wind turbines and solar panels are often built far from traditional power grids, complicating how utility companies can efficiently manage their energy.
“In England, all renewable energy is produced in Scotland and off the North Sea. But all the demand is in the south of England, “Wells said, adding that most countries have a similar dynamic, including the United States.” You can’t just move electricity. And everyone’s having these issues, so they don’t have enough capacity, and they’re having congestion issues.
Wells said the United States could see increased investment in modernizing power grids across the country, so they can handle more connections to alternative energy. The company is closely monitoring what will be included in an infrastructure bill currently being debated in Congress, and hopes it will provide incentives to modernize power grids.
“Frankly, even without this (infrastructure bill),” Wells said, utilities “are going to have to modernize. They can’t avoid it. So we think that over time, the US market … will probably represent more than 30 to 50% ”of the company’s activity.
This story was produced with the financial support of a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism scholarship program. The N&O retains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnover.