Of the 30 utility-scale solar projects built in the Southeast last year, 21 were in North Carolina. That’s the kind of good news business leaders heard when they gathered June 19 in Asheville to celebrate the successes and discuss the challenges facing the rapidly growing renewable energy industry. The event was the "Clean Energy in the Mountains" conference, which aimed to highlight innovators and spur new partnerships and projects, said Matt Raker, VP of Entrepreneurship at AdvantageWest.
"Across the state, we're seeing a great success story on clean energy. … even in tough economic times," he told the 100 or so attendees who met at The Venue downtown.
In the last five years, more than 100,000 jobs have been lost in North Carolina, but one positive trend has been the renewable energy sector, which has generated more than 20,000 jobs during that time. According to a recent report by the Sierra Club, "North Carolina is becoming a clean energy powerhouse," with the solar industry growing fast.
Those 21 solar projects give North Carolina more than any other state in the U.S., the report states. What’s more, the Environmental Entrepreneurs business group "ranked [the state] number two for green job creation in 2012, second only to California."
Much of the growth has been aided by the cost of solar panels dropping 60 percent over the last two years, according to the Sierra Club.
However, the question before Western North Carolina industry leaders at the Asheville conference was "How do we build on that success?" noted Raker.
Citing rapidly shifting local and global market places as well as outdated state regulations, Ivan Urlaub of the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association (NCSEA) reported that "everything's turning upside down and inside out" in the industry. The uncertain times call for "a very robust conversation" among business leaders, elected officials, and consumers, he said.
"We've got to work together," Urlaub urged, saying that he hopes conference attendees would be inspired by "these golden nuggets of wisdom that everyone is sharing with each other."
Here's a look at highlights of some of those golden nuggets.
Maggie Ullman, city of Asheville
Asheville has reduced its carbon emissions by 17 percent in the last five years, said Maggie Ullman, the city’s sustainability program manager who serves on the NCSEA board. Noting such "leadership by example," she reported that in recent months, staff have replaced 8,000 of the city’s 9,000 street lights with higher efficiency LED bulbs. And the city has committed to replacing 20 percent of the 500,000 gallons of diesel its fleet of vehicles uses with biodiesel.
She also maintained that the city "can be a really outstanding partner" with local businesses, citing a collaborative project to open a solar powered electric vehicle charging station.
But there's still room for improvement, especially in regard to the city's fee structures and incentives, Ullman said. Current incentives — such as the $50 waiver the city offers to residents installing geothermal heat pumps — are insufficient, she maintained.
Dale Freudenberger, FLS Energy
FLS Energy is "creating very good sustainable jobs," said Dale Freudenberger, one of the company’s founding partners.
Since opening its doors in 2006, the Asheville-based business has seen explosive growth, and now employs roughly 60 people. In fact, Inc. Magazine has rated it the fastest growing company in the state for the last two years in a row. In 2012, it brought over $80 million from outside investors into the state, Freudentberger reported.
He also noted that the company strives to be a good corporate resident in the local community, encouraging volunteerism among staff and matching employee donations to national environmental advocacy group EarthShare, dollar for dollar.
But what he's most proud of is the company's partnership with Green Opportunities, a local organization that trains disadvantaged residents to work in "green collar" jobs, Freudenberger said. The company has hired many of the program's graduates, he said, making a positive impact in the community.
Dave Hollister, Sundance Power Systems
With the potential to decentralize the power of big traditional utility companies, as well as solve climate change problems, solar panels are an "incredibly powerful technology," said Dave Hollister, co-founder of Sundance Power Systems.
The challenge, he said, is to "broaden the bandwidth of people who have access to this technology." It's getting easier as more creative financing opportunities become available for clients, he said, but too many people "don't realize they can be using this technology."
He praised organizations choosing to install solar panels as "heroes" for "looking at the long-term benefits, not just short-term profits." That "is what sustainability's all about," Hollister said.
Don Schjeldahl, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. views renewable energy technology "from a business standpoint," said Don Schjeldahl, local site coordinator for the company. He added, "It makes common sense in terms of profit."
Sierra hired Sundance Power Systems to install more than 2,000 solar panels at its new Mills River brewery; it’s also building a system that reuses 1 million gallons of storm water a year. Construction plans call for using high-efficiency building materials, and making the most of natural lighting at the site.
Schjeldahl also reported that "the culture of reusing and efficiency is very well developed at Sierra Nevada," which has earned accolades for taking environmental steps at its mother facility in Chico, Calif.
In fact, WNC’s focus on green technologies played a role in luring the business to decide to invest $107.5 million into its new brewery, he mentioned.
"The depth of things happening here in sustainability made an impact," he said. "It makes it easier for companies like Sierra Nevada to follow sustainable business practices because there's incredible support."
Photos by Max Cooper