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Global Carolina Profile: USC Forum on Clean Energy and Jobs

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COLUMBIA, SC – Energy production, the environment and economic growth are not mutually exclusive concepts. Rather, the same technologies that will improve efficiency in the energy sector in the next forty years will help preserve our natural resources, greatly reduce pollution and slow climate change. Meanwhile, ongoing efforts to rebuild our aging national energy infrastructure will provide tremendous opportunities for new employment. That was the takeaway from the Clean Energy and Jobs forum held 22 October at the University of South Carolina.

The forum brought together a panel drawn not just from the energy sector but also from academia and from the environmental movement. Duke Energy CEO James Rogers and GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt were joined by executive director of the South Carolina Nature Conservancy Mark Robertson and USC President Harris Pastides. The panelists all agreed that the energy industry has a unique opportunity between now and 2050 to reshape both the environment and the economy.

Reducing Emissions, Increasing Opportunity
Each of the panelists recognized the need to change the way the United States meets its energy demands in the next forty years. And each saw South Carolina and the Southeast as ripe for the sort of “new generation” infrastructure development necessary to improve both the regional and global environment while dramatically expanding local workforces.

Robertson said that alternative energies such as nuclear, wind and solar power present environmental challenges of their own, notably placing a burden on land and water resources. Despite these challenges – and the reality that for the immediate future we must continue to rely in large part on coal and natural gas – Robertson sees opportunities, particularly in the Southeast. An “optimist at heart,” he is hopeful that, by working with the energy industry, environmental groups can not only improve the ailing environment but aid in the economic recovery. “The good news is that South Carolina does have some promising energy resources right here at home,” Robertson said, “and if we develop them we can reduce environmental impact, we can reap economic benefits and we can create new jobs.”

All of the Above, Not More of the Same
As CEO of Duke Energy, the Charlotte-based powerhouse that has made headlines in recent years as a leader in the clean energy movement, Jim Rogers shared Robertson’s concerns about fossil fuels but said that his ultimate goal remains “to provide affordable, reliable, clean electricity, 24x7, 365 days a year.”
Rogers said the mission over the next forty years will be to de-carbonize, to modernize our aging electrical grid and to become the most energy efficient nation in the world. New energy-saving technologies being created by partner companies will drive the efficiencies market and in turn give a powerful jolt to the energy industry. Such efforts will not only generate new job opportunities but also spawn additional unforeseeable technologies, much as the electrification of America did in the last century.

“When we started down the road to providing universal access to people in America, we didn’t know what we would enable,” Rogers said. The massive coast-to-coast effort to provide basic utilities ultimately led to everything from x-rays and MRIs to television, radio and computers – and simultaneously cleaned the air of our cities, which had become thick with smoke from the coal used to light and heat homes and businesses. Meeting today’s challenges today is a similar balancing act, Rogers said, but one which promises tremendous economic dividends.

“I don’t have the luxury of just looking through the ‘clean’ lens, or just through the ‘reliability’ lens, or just through the ‘affordability’ lens,” Rogers told the packed auditorium. “My challenge is making the tradeoffs between affordability, reliability and clean [energy] . . . and those tradeoffs are really quite difficult to make.”

Still, Rogers believes such tradeoffs can and will be made, and in a way that is beneficial to everyone – particularly in the Carolinas. When it comes to energy production in the 21st century, he promotes the “all-of-the-above” approach advocated throughout the Charlotte region, which has recently re-branded itself The New Energy Capital. For example, Duke Energy is presently invested heavily in “clean coal” gasification and natural gas production, as well as geographically appropriate wind and solar power projects. Ultimately, however, Rogers anticipates a move to widespread nuclear power production by 2050.

Better Batteries and Electric Cars
GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt echoed many of Rogers’s sentiments but also championed the idea of the electric car. It’s no secret that as the electric car industry has heated up this year, GE has been partnering with other technology companies, many in the Southeast, to develop the necessary infrastructure to make their widespread adoption a reality.

Since unveiling its WattStation electric car charging systems earlier this year, GE has continued to step up its efforts to promote the electric car, signifying a shift that will mean significant economic development on a national scale, certainly, but also in the Southern Auto Corridor, which is already gearing up for the transition to electric vehicles. And with six of the seven new car and light truck assembly plants announced in the United States in the last decade having been built or planned for the Southern Auto Corridor, it’s easy to see how new innovations will shape the emerging electronic vehicle economy across the South.

In the last two years, next-generation automotive assembly projects have been announced by Southern Auto Corridor companies such as Nissan, V-Vehicle and Hybrid Kinetic Motors. And this year, electric bus maker Proterra announced plans to build a full scale, state-of-the-art research and development center as well as a manufacturing plant on the campus of CU-ICAR (the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research) in Greenville, South Carolina, for the EcoRide BE-35, other next-generation zero emission vehicles and FastFill charging stations. Korean-based electric car manufacturer CT&T has also recently announced plans for a new manufacturing facility in Spartanburg County, South Carolina.

Based on these trends and GE’s own initiatives, Immelt emphasized his faith in the bright future of the electric car, saying that “they will become pervasive,” but didn’t stop there. He also touched on GE’s work in the aeronautics industry in the Carolinas, and specifically its partnership with Boeing, which is currently constructing a US$750 million manufacturing plant in North Charleston, South Carolina. GE is currently manufacturing engines for the aviation giant at its own Durham, North Carolina, jet engine plant.

Forging the Future
USC President Harris Pastides used the forum to emphasize the role of the academy in training the entrepreneurs necessary to take the reins from Rogers, Immelt and other industry leaders during the next generation. Pastides also emphasized the need to work with technical colleges, to provide private companies with the steady stream of skilled technicians and skilled laborers they will require in the coming decades.

Pastides cited in particular the university’s efforts to design a curriculum for the nuclear technologies program at Midlands Technical College in Columbia. That program, which was launched in cooperation with SCANA, one of the region’s leading energy providers, will specifically prepare students for positions at expanding nuclear power facilities currently being built by SCANA in Fairfield County, South Carolina. Pastides hopes to launch similar collaborations with the state’s technical colleges and with other private sector companies in the future. “We’d be happy to devise new curricula, according to what Duke Energy and SCANA and the others need,” Pastides said. “And right now, quite frankly, anywhere the jobs are students will run to.”

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