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Verner column: Plugging into new energy sectors

Rowan’s EDC exploring the possibilitiesCould Duke Energy’s $50 million plan to put energy-producing solar panels on hundreds of rooftops across North Carolina help generate jobs in Rowan County?
The Duke plan, which was approved last week by the state Utilities Commission, is just one example of the growth in the “green” or alternative energy sector that is drawing interest from economic development officials like Robert Van Geons, executive director of the Salisbury-Rowan County Economic Development Commission. Van Geons is working with both regional and state entities to identify and pursue business opportunities in the sector. He recently attended a solar show in San Diego and another conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., where solar consultants talked about growth in the field. Although he shuns buzz words such as renewable energy, Van Geons came away excited about the possibilities, which range from solar to wind power to biofuels to hydrogen fuel cells and geothermal output.
“There is a viability that is here now, not five years out,” he says. “There is a profit-driven, private-sector viability coming online and an opportunity for us to be on the front end of that curve.”
That certainly appears to be borne out by a spate of projects around the state and nation. Sunedison, a Maryland company, is investing $173 million in a solar farm in Davidson County that is expected to break ground this year and be selling electricity to Duke by 2011. The startup company Sencera recently invested $36 million in a small Charlotte factory to make solar panels. In Shelby, a PPG Industries fiberglass plant recently expanded its workforce as it shifted production to make components used in wind turbine blades. Several states already have significant solar or wind generating capacity. In Texas, former oilman T. Boone Pickens has mounted a major campaign pushing the transition to wind-produced electricity.
Companies that are expanding in the midst of a global downturn? No wonder economic development people might take notice. Granted, renewable energy is a small segment of the region’s economy now, employing an estimated 6,400 workers, yet the growth prospects are eye-opening. The N.C. Sustainable Energy Association projects that jobs in the field will increase 24 percent over the next year. North Carolina currently has more than 100 renewable-energy manufacturers, according to the State Energy Office ó compared to 28 firms only three years ago.
Van Geons says that the Charlotte region and Rowan County are well positioned to tap into this trend for several reasons. At the state level, a new law requires utilities to generate a portion of their electricity from renewable sources, and businesses also can take advantage of renewable-energy tax credits. The same kind of attributes that have drawn manufacturers in the past ó relatively affordable land, ample water and sewer resources, rail and interstate highway access, existing electrical infrastructure ó are just as important in building the machinery for the next generation of power producers, whether it’s panels for solar power or the pipes and boilers necessary to process biomass fuels.
What’s also important is the spirit of entrepreneurism ó the same spirit, Van Geons notes, that gave rise to local companies such as Stanback, Cheerwine and Food Lion. He also points out that this initiative builds on earlier groundwork laid by others, such as Catawba College’s Center for the Environment and local business and civic leaders who’ve recognized the importance of diversifying the economy and promoting sustainable technologies. Affiliations with academic institutions such as UNC-Charlotte, which is building an energy production and infrastructure center; N.C. State University’s Solar Center and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College will also be essential, both to incubate new technologies and train future workers in the field.
“There are some great opportunities to dovetail our strengths into this,” he said.
In the near term, conventional sources such as oil and coal will continue to produce the bulk of the nation’s electricity. Longer term, however, the shift toward alternative energies is inevitable, and the momentum is rapidly building. Globally, the alternative energy sector represented $148 billion in investment in 2007 ó a 60 percent increase from the year before. North Carolina already has many companies capable of plugging into that growth. In a recent study, UNC-Greensboro Professor Keith Debbage identified more than 500 manufacturers in the Charlotte region who could transition into supplying components for the renewable energy market. Just as the increased demand for wind turbine equipment breathed new life into PPG’s Shelby plant, renewable energy might create new markets and jobs to help offset losses in textiles, tobacco and other fading manufacturing sectors.
While Van Geons says it’s too early to make any specific announcements, he’s optimistic that the connections are in place to yield tangible results in the near future.
“We have companies that are in the early stages of bringing new projects to market,” he says. “They’re working on those next generation technologies right here in Rowan County.”
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Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post. Contact him at cverner@salisburypost.com or 704-797-4262.

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