UNC, RTP firms launch Clean Tech summit

tgrubb@newsobserver.comFebruary 25, 2014 

  • If you go

    The 2014 Clean Tech Summit is from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.Wednesday at the Friday Center, located off N.C. 54 in Chapel Hill. You can register in advance and get more information at ie.unc.edu/cleantech/, or you can register at the conference.

    The cost is $125 for most people and $20 for students with identification. N.C. Sustainable Energy Association and Solar Center members pay $95.

— Being able to use solar energy even when the sun isn’t shining is the holy grail for Strata Solar and energy companies, its founder says.

Since 2008, the Chatham County company has created thousands of jobs, established dozens of solar farms and helped push North Carolina to second in the nation for solar energy production, said Markus Wilhelm, founder and chief executive officer.

Wilhelm will launch the inaugural Clean Tech Summit on Wednesday at UNC’s Friday Center on N.C. 54. The Research Triangle Park area is home to more than 200 companies focused on smart grid technology and efficient water management and transportation.

Strata Solar, the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster and UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School Center for Sustainable Enterprise and Institute for the Environment are hosts for the daylong summit focused on the future of energy and water conservation. Keynote speaker Lou D’Ambrosio is the chairman of Sensus, a founding board member for the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster.

Sensus works with government, industry and academic clients, including Duke Energy and N.C. Electric Membership Corp., to improve and deliver resources more efficiently by adding clean technology to traditional hardware, from utility grids and monitors to control valves, D’Ambrosio said.

With a Sensus system, for instance, utility workers can find leaks more quickly and turn off the water remotely, he said. It makes finding and fixing leaks more efficient but also saves water, which is a finite resource, he said.

“There is an urgency to act now and optimism about how a few simple steps can leave, frankly, this world in better hands for future generations,” D’Ambrosio said.

Greg Gangi, associate director for education at UNC’s Institute for the Environment, said the summit also will look at education’s role. Companies are coming to RTP, because they see three top-tier universities and a well-educated workforce, he said. Community colleges also have a vital role in retraining workers for tech jobs, he said.

Math and science will be important, but so will social media and behavioral sciences, said Sensus spokeswoman Linda Palmer. Tech companies are undergoing a “brain drain” as Baby Boomers retire; they need younger ideas and a better understanding of what motivates people to conserve, she said.

Wilhelm said North Carolina is now second only to California for solar projects. Strata Solar started in 2008 with roughly a dozen employees and has trained roughly 1,500 people, he said. Another 1,200 construction workers hit hard by the recession also have found jobs, he said.

The company is adding cutting-edge, rechargable batteries from China-based BYD to its utility farm projects. Strata Solar installed solar panels that generated nearly 200 megawatts in 30 projects last year. This year, they expect to add solar panels generating another 300 to 400 megawatts in North Carolina and other states.

Each battery – about the size of a 20- to 40-foot shipping container – is costly and complex now, Wilhelm said. The batteries can be configured to store as much power as needed, and in three to five years, they could be more attractively priced, he said.

The Solar Energy Industries Association reports the average number of homes powered by a megawatt of solar energy per hour differs from state to state. In North Carolina, it’s 95 homes, according to the association.

Wilhelm said BYD, a pioneer in rechargable batteries for cars, electronics and other devices, will work with Strata Solar to refine the technology.

“We do this because we believe in what we do,” Wilhelm said. “You have to have your heart in it.”

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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