The US South’s New Clean Energy Hub

While Charlotte, N.C., is perhaps best known as a financial center, with big institutions like Bank of America and Wells Fargo dominating the skyline, the area is also a major energy hub. The region is home to more than 260 companies and nearly 28,000 workers that are tied directly to the energy sector, including Charlotte-based Duke Energy. Moreover, the region is developing a growing number of clean energy initiatives, and the state has implemented legislature that requires investor-owned utilities to generate 12.5 percent of their retail sales from renewable energy by 2021.

That’s the message that the Charlotte Regional Partnership (CRP), a nonprofit economic development organization, brings with it on mission trips, including one earlier this year to Tokyo. In its efforts to tap into Japan’s growing clean energy industry, the CRP highlighted several local programs during a presentation at the U.S. Embassy.

One such program is the Catawba County Regional EcoComplex and Resource Recovery Facility. The 805-acre site has multiple components that are designed to convert byproducts and waste materials into renewable sources of energy, which are then fed to the power grid.

About 500 tons of county waste is trucked daily into the facility’s landfill. The garbage is burned inside internal combustible engines, which turn three 1-MW generators. This electricity is then sold to the power company, and the profits are used to fund other EcoComplex projects.

This includes the Biodiesel Research Facility, which harnesses heat emitted from the landfill generators. The heat breaks down seeds from locally grown feedstock crops like sunflowers and canola, converting them to biodiesel. The facility produces about 100,000 gallons of biodiesel a year, which is used in county vehicles such as dump trucks, bulldozers and excavators.

Barry Edwards, director of Catawba County’s Utilities and Engineering, says the ultimate goal is to recover all useable products and by-products from local private and public partners and use these waste products either as a source of energy or as a raw material for the production of products such as pallets or lumber. “The EcoComplex makes one industry’s output stream another industry’s input stream,” Edwards says. “It brings to life the old saying that ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.’”

While the EcoComplex strives to convert waste materials into renewable energy sources, the nonprofit Envision Charlotte has implemented a program designed to reduce energy usage in the city’s urban core.

Amy Aussieker, Envision Charlotte’s executive director, explains that Smart Energy Now is a first-of-its-kind public-private initiative that uses technology to change the way people think about and use energy. The project, which is a collaborative effort between Charlotte Center City Partners, the city, county, Duke Energy, and some of the largest companies in uptown Charlotte, was announced during the Clinton initiative in Oct. 2010. About a year later special interactive kiosks and monitors were installed in 61 participating uptown buildings — totaling about 21 million square feet — that provide real-time data and graphic displays about each building’s energy consumption. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” says Aussieker.

The kiosks, which are sort of like giant iPads, also provide simple changes people can make to conserve energy, such as using more natural daylight in the office, setting back the thermostat when a building is unoccupied, and regularly maintaining a building’s equipment to ensure it is functioning efficiently.

Envision Charlotte announced in May its project reduced the use of electricity by 8.4 percent over its first three years. The hope is that the program will spur sustainable behaviors in order to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent over five years at an estimated savings of $16 million.

E4 Carolinas is another clean energy initiative. A consortium of energy and engineering firms, government agencies, economic development groups and educators created E4 in response to the region’s growing energy consumption. The nonprofit’s mission is to nurture workforce development and technology innovations in order to foster efficient and environmentally sensitive energy clusters.  

The collaborative effort includes a variety of companies, including Charlotte-based Calor Energy Consulting, which helps everyone from property developers to nonprofits select the best renewable energy options. Through a technical analysis, Calor determines if it’s economically feasible for a company to install a system, such as solar and wind. If so, it also assists clients with issues like seeking tax and equity investors as well as selecting the best EPC (Engineering, Procurement, Construction) for the project.

The consultant has spearheaded many projects, such as helping Charlotte’s Levine Museum of the New South obtain a key grant from Duke Energy—using key metrics like energy use, recycling programs and employee commuting—to upgrade its lighting and HVAC to meet sustainability goals. The changes have reduced the history museum’s consumption of power and gas by as much as 30 percent annually. The consultant also helped create an innovative financing plan to attract private investment in order to install a 10 KW PV solar system on the roof of Friendship Trays. The project helped the “meals-on-wheels” program save on utility bills and establish cash flow though renewable energy credit sales and tax credits.  

Another E4 Carolina partner, 02energies, develops large-scale, ground-mounted solar power plants in the Southeast, creating work and educational opportunities while enhancing sustainability. Some notable projects include Avery Solar, in which a 1 megawatt, six-acre solar farm was built at Henderson Farms, a Christmas tree farm in North Carolina. Each year, the solar farm generates 1,161 MWh of electricity during times of peak demand. The company also installed a 1.2-MW solar power plant at Mount Airy, the childhood home of actor Andy Griffith and a popular tourist attraction. The six-acre site generates electricity into the Duke Energy grid and provides power to hundreds of homes and small businesses.

The Charlotte region is one of the fastest-growing metro areas in the country. Its population increased 1.8 percent, climbing to 2.3 million, between July 2012 and July 2013. Moreover, the region is expected to see an influx of more than 1.8 million people over the next 40 years — increasing the current population by more than half. This makes CRP’s economic development efforts and initiatives like EcoComplex, Envision Charlotte and E4 Carolinas all the more important as a way to both safeguard the environment and strengthen the region’s position in the global marketplace.

Lead image: North Carolina via Shutterstock

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