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Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Carolina leads efforts in clean tech

Carolina hosted the annual Clean Tech Summit to discuss the future of electricity and examine ways to create safer and smarter communities in North Carolina.

For two days, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill united a diverse group of 500 academics, professionals and students for one reason—to discuss issues and ideas surrounding North Carolina’s clean technology sector.

The second annual NC Clean Tech Summit was hosted at the Friday Center on Feb. 19-20, but the hope is that its impact will last for years.

In 2014, North Carolina ranked fifth for the creation of new clean energy jobs in an assessment by the policy group Environmental Entrepreneurs, and the Triangle area is now home to over 200 companies involved with water and energy efficiency. Clean technologies include renewable energy, like wind and solar, as well as green transportation and smart water technology. They typically reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions and conserve resources.

Markus Wilhelm, CEO of Strata Solar, a solar energy provider headquartered in Chapel Hill, said the event provided a place for different industries and sectors to discuss the future of the growing industry.

“This became a platform,” said Wilhelm, who also helped plan the summit, “for everybody to meet, share ideas—also disagree, without it ever becoming confrontational or personal.”

The summit was hosted by the UNC Institute for the Environment and the Kenan-Flagler Center for Sustainable Enterprise, with support from a variety of UNC organizations and clean energy businesses.

Attendees were able to ask industry, finance, political and innovation leaders questions during interactive panels.

Panelists included Lynn Good, CEO of Duke Energy, retired Gen. Wesley Clark of the United States Army, and Rep. John Szoka of the North Carolina General Assembly.

Day one of the conference focused on topics related to building smarter, stronger, and more secure communities. Issues discussed ranged from efficient public transportation to the military as a driver of renewable energy.

The second day revolved around the future of electricity on the Southeast. Panelists discussed the political, financial, and technological issues surrounding clean technology.

Spencer Nelson, a senior majoring in environmental science and quantitative biology, said he was inspired to hear the optimism of smaller clean technology companies in the face of potential cuts to tax benefits. He pointed out that North Carolina was ranked the fourth-highest expander of solar power in the United States last year.

“I used to be really discouraged,” he said, “but the companies have started to grow extremely quickly.”

Major utility companies CEOs, like Duke Energy’s Good and Southern Company’s Thomas Fanning, were able to express concerns and ideas about clean energy.

Another CEO, Bill Johnson of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation’s largest public utility, gave the keynote address. He said clean technology can help TVA improve lives, but asked attendees to think critically during the summit about how to develop its growth.

“Clean tech can be a powerful tool to help us do this,” he said, “but only if we do it right.”

Anita Simha, a sophomore majoring in linguistics and quantitative biology, said she appreciated hearing about clean technology from the utility perspective.

“It is important to see where they are coming from,” she said, “to have all the voices in the room.”

Randy Wheeless, spokesperson for Duke Energy, said the summit gives utilities and clean technology companies the chance to find common ground.

“I think if we can have more agreement on some big issues,” he said, “we can go even further.”

For others, the conference served as a way to spread the word about their companies, products and ideas.

Cory Shaw, public relations representative at Sungevity, a California-based national solar energy provider co-founded by a UNC alum, said that the company had just opened a branch in North Carolina and wanted to spread the word. Organic Transit, headquartered in Durham, North Carolina, brought ELF, the company’s small, solar-powered trike vehicle.

Students attended the conference for a small fee. They were also invited to lunch panels where they could learn about future employment and education opportunities in the clean technology field.

Simha said she was excited to be a part of the summit.

“I can’t believe they gave students this opportunity, to be here with all these big fish in the pond,” she said.

Wilhelm said that UNC is positioning itself at the forefront of cutting edge renewable technology and development. Seeing a research university take charge of these issues through actions like the Clean Tech Summit, he said, is encouraging to companies like his.

“What you have seen today,” he said, “even with the heads of the large utilities coming and talking, does not exist anywhere else.”