CHARLOTTE, NC – Whatever solutions are ultimately found to the challenge of developing a new energy policy, one thing is certain: those companies that take the lead in alternative energy technology today will position themselves as major players in the global economy tomorrow.
That was the consensus among the industry leaders who shared the stage at the “Energy, Inc.” conference in Charlotte on April 23, 2010. And while the speakers addressed national energy policy as well as international competition and trade, the event centered on energy sector growth in the Carolinas and, specifically, the Charlotte Region.
Having recently re-branded itself “The New Energy Capital,” the longtime banking center is quickly re-inventing itself as an international hub for energy research and production, according to executive vice president of the Charlotte Regional Partnership, Kenny McDonald: “We want things to be imagined here, designed here, manufactured here, maintained here, and distributed from here.”
New Opportunities, New Challenges
Overcoming the challenges involved in making such a transition, however, is no easy task. To work toward solutions, a consortium of companies, educational organizations, chambers, and economic development groups – coordinated by the Charlotte Regional Partnership – was developed. As these local and global players began to promote the region as an energy hub, the Charlotte Business Journal committed to holding an annual Energy, Inc. conference.
The inaugural conference’s panel members were as diverse as the opportunities and challenges discussed. French-born nuclear power booster and CEO of AREVA North America, Jacques Besnainou, together with Randy Zwirn from Siemens Energy, Jim Rogers from Duke Energy, and Tom Skains from Piedmont Natural Gas, touched on nearly every aspect of the carbon-neutral energy economy. The panelists predicted significant growth not only in nuclear power but in wind, solar, and natural gas.
Following the CEO panel, McDonald discussed the many ways his organization is already working to address the challenges the region faces in becoming an energy leader. “From assisting relocating companies with site selection in the region to placing signs outside the Charlotte Airport that let people know the moment they arrive that this is The New Energy Capital, we are now transforming our economy from one built on banking to one built on the energy solutions of tomorrow.”
While the panelists agreed that growth in these fields could dramatically impact the economy of the Carolinas, they expressed some concern over factors that could inhibit growth, including an aging workforce and a lack of traditional craftsmen, such as the welders, parts manufacturers, and contractors needed to build and maintain new energy-producing facilities. But these challenges present enormous opportunities for local suppliers. “We need the small suppliers to be advocates for new energy solutions,” Besnainou says.
A Solid Foundation for Growth
Top-flight engineering programs from the Charlotte Region and throughout the Carolinas already exist – including the University of North Carolina–Charlotte, North Carolina State University, the University of South Carolina, and Clemson University – to meet the emerging infrastructure demands. But new initiatives are also being launched in the region. The highly touted Energy Production Infrastructure Center (EPIC) at UNC-Charlotte was the only newly funded university program by the North Carolina legislature in 2009, and has helped UNC-Charlotte’s engineering college become one of the fastest growing in the nation. And the Nuclear Systems Technologies program at Midlands Technical College in Columbia, SC, began training a new generation of nuclear technicians in August 2009.
Having recently re-branded itself “The New Energy Capital,” the longtime banking center is quickly becoming an international hub for energy research and production. American and foreign corporations are looking at the entire Charlotte Region as a place for new development and growth. Numerous companies, educational organizations, chambers, and economic development groups throughout the Carolinas are helping the Region establish itself as a global player in the new energy economy. Some of those include:
Investment is also pouring in from the federal government, as a US$9 million grant from the Department of Energy was awarded to nine historically black colleges and universities in South Carolina and Georgia in March of 2010. The grant money is intended to help launch several training programs for students pursuing careers in nuclear materials and waste management.
An “All of the Above” Energy Portfolio
Building on the region’s strengths, the Energy, Inc. panelists envision a regional “energy portfolio” to be made up of traditional and alternative energy technologies – and are already working to make that portfolio a reality. Piedmont Natural Gas is currently building five new pipelines for liquid natural gas in North Carolina, while Duke Energy is at work on a pair of gas-powered plants that will be supplied by Piedmont. Siemens is involved in the wind energy research at Clemson and at a new wind farm in North Charleston. Meanwhile, companies like Proterra, the Greenville, SC–based transportation innovators responsible for the zero-emissions Zbus, and Charlotte-based lithium battery manufacturer Celgard are making major inroads in storable energy technologies. Greenfield Power, a Charlotte-based comprehensive solar firm, announced last week that it will build a PV unit that supplies more than 100 percent of the power needed at a Global TransPark facility in Kinston, NC.
Together, these developments reflect what the panelists called an “all-of-the-above” strategy that should be adopted when plotting the future of the energy industry. While such an approach poses further challenges – and while “70 percent of the hardware necessary for renewable energy production is still manufactured overseas,” according to panel moderator Scott Carlberg – suppliers across the Carolinas have emerged, and continue to emerge, to address these exact needs.
Solar module manufacturer Sencera and Innovative Solar Solutions, both based in Charlotte, represent just two companies making serious commitments to regionally based domestic solar hardware production. Closer to the coast, German-based wind turbine parts manufacturer IMO Group announced plans in March of 2010 to open its first U.S. manufacturing facility in Dorchester County, SC, just outside the port city of Charleston. IMO Group’s investment in Carolina-based wind energy technology is estimated at $47 million.
To underscore the potential for domestic manufacturing in the face of overseas competition from countries like China, Zwirn pointed out that Siemens Energy, “has the proven capability to produce domestically all the hardware its plants require for wind energy production.”
The Future Is Now
Just as Charlotte Region leaders are re-branding themselves as global players in the new energy economy, American and foreign corporations are looking at the entire region as a place for new development and growth. And just as two- and four-year colleges across the Carolinas are stepping up their efforts to train the engineers, technicians, and workforce necessary for this growth, measurable progress is being made to level the imbalance between foreign and local technology and suppliers.
As every panelist present at Energy, Inc. made clear, the existing industry is poised to enter a new era where profit and sustainability combine for a better, brighter future. The interest is here, the educational efforts are underway, and the investment capital necessary to move the region forward as a leader in new energy technology continues to pump in. At this point, it’s merely a matter of connecting the dots – and the Charlotte Region has proven it is already hard at work doing just that.