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At a press event today in downtown San Francisco, GE announced new products and a funding initiative centered on smart grid research.

In collaboration with four major venture-capital firms, the company has opened a $200 million funding challenge to anyone who wants to submit ideas over the next ten weeks through a website. GE will offer research grants and development to projects in the areas of renewables, the grid, and green buildings. The venture firms working with GE on the initiative are Emerald Technology Ventures, Foundation Capital, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byer, and RockPort Capital . Company representatives called the smart-grid market a “fat, slow moving rabbit” that a company like GE can capitalize on. GE will invest five percent of its industrial revenue this year in R&D, but to catch that fat rabbit and do it quickly, said CEO Jeff Immelt, the company needs partners.

Designer Yves Behar with the GE WattStation electric-vehicle charger at a press event in San Francisco.

Immelt also talked about the need to rebrand green initiatives so that they don’t sound “elite,” and rebranded the smart grid as “digital energy.” GE also announced two products today that are designed to bring that friendly feeling to the consumer. The GE WattStation, an electric-vehicle recharging station that, according to the company, reduces charging times from 12 to 18 hours to four to eight hours for a 24-kilowatt-hour battery. Industrial designer Yves Behar, founder of San Francisco firm fuseproject, talked about making the charging station as friendly as possible. “We designed the WattStation to be as far away as possible from the gas station, with its visual and physical pollution,” he said. “A company like GE needs people to participate in the products.” Behar says markets for the charging station include cities, businesses, and individuals; it will be on sale at the end of the year.

The company also announced that next year it will launch a consumer counterpart to the smart meters being implemented by utilities. The Nucleus, a data-storage and communications device, will monitor gather data on electricity use by particular appliances and send it to a computer. On the computer, consumers will be able to use dedicated software to manage and monitor their energy use .

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Tagged: Energy, electric cars, GE, smart grid, grid, electricity grid, smart meters, smart charging

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