Research Triangle Region Shapes the Intelligent Energy Future

Published on WRAL Tech Wire: Part I of a three-part series on the Research Triangle Region’s Cleantech Cluster.

Ten years ago, North Carolina’s inaugural Sustainable Energy Conference hosted a few hundred government, academic and nonprofit representatives discussing ways to improve environmental protection and energy efficiency in the state.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago and more than 1,000 people – including executives from top energy companies around the globe – convened to vision and plan how to change the energy landscape for the Research Triangle Region, North Carolina and the world.

The 10th annual N.C. Department of Commerce State Energy Office -hosted event offered a telling glance at the pace of innovation and scale of opportunity that smart, clean energy technology offers as both a driver of business and economic growth and provider of solutions for pressing global energy and environmental challenges.

Indeed, Research Triangle Region cleantech companies announced more than $700 million in capital investments and 2,600 new jobs since July 2009, when the Research Triangle Regional Partnership (RTRP) first identified cleantech as a regional economic development priority. Those cleantech investments accounted for nearly 12 percent of all regional investments announced during the period and one in 10 jobs.

Still, they represent only a fraction of the growth that is to come. The global utility industry alone expects to spend $1.5 trillion over the next five years to upgrade grid infrastructure. That is good news for the Research Triangle Region, which is perfectly positioned and uniquely qualified to become a global hub for cleantech companies, innovation and talent.

Cleantech refers to the range of products, services and processes that use renewable materials and energy sources, reduce the use of natural resources, and cut or eliminate emissions and wastes. Where “greentech” approaches of the past focused mainly on “end-of-pipe” fixes, cleantech considers the entire spectrum, from raw materials to energy generation, transmission, distribution and use, and, ultimately, treatment and disposal of waste.

Creating the smart grid will require a rare combination of hardware and software, a point of convergence that just happens to be the sweet spot of the Research Triangle Region economy. Several hundred companies, supported by public and private research institutions and support organizations, make the region’s cleantech cluster one of the most innovative, competitive and rapidly growing in the world. Together, they are leading innovation in smart grid, advanced transportation, water technologies, renewable energy and energy efficiency – all building blocks of an intelligent energy industry.  

Smart grid is an area of particular interest to the region because it builds on key regional strengths. A 2011 Duke University study identified a dense and rapidly expanding concentration of at least 60 companies working in the region’s smart grid sector. Many operate corporate, division or national headquarters in the region, which increase the region’s importance and prominence.  Combined, they offer total coverage in the intelligent energy space.

They include electric and water metering companies, like Elster and Sensus; transmission and distribution companies, like ABB, Schneider Electric and Siemens; supportive technology, analytics and communications software companies, such as Cisco, Field2Base Inc., IBM, Power Analytics Corp. and SAS. They include three major utilities: Duke Energy, the largest electric utility in the country, rural provider North Carolina Electric Cooperatives, and ElectriCities, an association of small-town electric companies. They include energy efficiency companies, like Cree, leading provider of LED lighting, and PowerSecure International, provider of energy efficient power systems, products and infrastructure upgrades.

Meanwhile, extensive R&D and support organizations in the region help advance smart grid technologies. Innovation generators include RTI International, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and each of the region’s research universities. The Biofuels Center of North Carolina, located in the region, implements the state’s strategic plan for alternative fuels, which calls for 10 percent of all liquid fuels sold in North Carolina by 2017 to come from biofuels grown and produced in the state.

N.C. State University is home to the National Science Foundation-funded FREEDM research center, which is working to transform the nation's electric power grid into a smart grid that can store and distribute energy produced from solar panels, wind farms, fuel cells and other energy sources. The N.C. Solar Center, also at N.C. State University, houses the nation’s largest and most cited database for policy and financial incentive information on energy efficiency and renewable energy.  

Research teams from Duke University, N.C. Central University, N.C. State, RTI International and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill operate the Energy Frontiers Research Center, developing molecular catalysts and light absorbers and integrating them with nanoscale architectures to generate fuels and electricity from sunlight.

A March report prepared for the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center identified a robust electronics sector that employs nearly 22,000 people, well above the national average. This broad sector is a cross-cutting one, interrelated with the region’s smart grid firms.

The International Cleantech Network (ICN) acknowledged these globally significant assets in 2011 when it invited the Research Triangle Region to join its exclusive network of 15 members as one of only two North American partners. Economic developers and companies work closely with ICN partners around the world – in Singapore and regions in Colorado, France, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Italy and Spain – to showcase the region’s cleantech assets and facilitate connections among local experts and cluster contacts worldwide.

Events like the state’s Sustainable Energy Conference in April offer the opportunity to step back and marvel at the breadth and depth of the region’s growing cleantech cluster. They play an important role in bringing cluster players together to vision and plan and they educate the community about the enormous potential this cluster holds for our future.

Charles A. Hayes is president and chief executive officer of the Research Triangle Regional Partnership (RTRP), the public-private partnership that leads economic development strategy for the 13-county Research Triangle Region of North Carolina. RTRP formed and manages the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster.

See original story on WRAL Tech Wire.

By Charles A. Hayes, CEcD, President & CEO, Research Triangle Regional Partnership

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