Peter Mengele, a German business executive, was leading other American journalists and me to a talk in Karlsruhe, Germany, last month about his country’s rapidly changing energy sector. He hoped to give us a tour of a recently shuttered nuclear reactor, but was blocked.
It seems leading German energy officials didn’t want U.S. journalists to see them as being affiliated with nuclear power.
“They say, ‘No, we don’t do nuclear anymore.’ We’re all about energy innovation,” Mengele said.
Germany is leading the world by undergoing a transformation in where it gets its energy – and Charlotte, of all places, stands to benefit. Charlotte executives have long enjoyed fruitful relationships with their German counterparts. Now they hope that Charlotte’s aspiration of becoming a new energy hub can intersect with Germany’s energy metamorphosis.
Both sides talk about building an “energy bridge” between Karlsruhe and Charlotte. The footings are already in place, and completing the span could help Charlotte in its effort to diversify its economy beyond a struggling financial services sector.
The group I was with in Germany included journalists from Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Detroit, San Antonio and Miami. The German businessmen, though, were as familiar with Charlotte as with any of those because of the deep ties between the Queen City and their country, and especially the industrial region of Baden-Wurttemberg. No fewer than 58 companies based in the Karlsruhe area have Charlotte-area operations, employing 5,000 people here. Overall, about 200 German companies have facilities in the Charlotte region. The Charlotte area, in fact, probably leads the United States in direct German industrial investment.
Building a new economy
Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx and others have been declaring Charlotte an energy hub since shortly after Wall Street (and Tryon Street) cratered. It was true, to an extent, if for no other reason than the (now) largest utility in the nation is headquartered here. It was also a prophecy that they hoped would be self-fulfilling: Draw a circle around the energy companies here, call them a cluster and watch others stream in to where the action is.
We should all hope it works. The banks that built this town won’t turn things around tomorrow. An energy cluster could be our region’s best bet for creating jobs to offset those being lost in the bank towers.
The skeleton has gotten some meat on its bones. About 260 energy companies employing 30,000 workers call the Charlotte region home.
Those companies need trained workers, and Charlotte is stepping up. Central Piedmont Community College has partnered with the Karlsruhe region chamber of commerce to provide certification in five technical disciplines meeting specific German standards. Starting in August, students can get the precise training that German companies require, an arrangement that is unique nationally. CPCC has also partnered with German energy giant Siemens to train high school seniors and others, who would then go directly to working in the company’s gas turbine plant.
Also in August, UNC Charlotte engineering students will begin studying in a new $76 million building housing the Energy Production and Infrastructure Center. Private companies have invested around $20 million, hoping to produce engineers for the region’s energy companies – and to attract more such companies.
Renewables as economic driver
Germany is turning its energy sector upside down. It is eliminating its nuclear power industry by 2022 – no small feat since in 2010 that accounted for 22 percent of German energy consumption. It is replacing it with renewables – wind, biomass, hydropower and solar – and expects 80 percent of its power to come from them by 2050. In just 12 years, Germany has already more than tripled its renewable energy use, from 6 percent of its electricity to more than 20 percent.
Michael Almond, a Charlotte lawyer and consultant who works to attract German businesses here, says Germany has more than doubled the number of jobs in renewable energy (to 370,000) just since 2004.
Almond, Duke executives and others are working with Mengele and his colleagues to build that Karlsruhe-Charlotte bridge. As Germany leads the world in transitioning to a renewable-energy future, the thinking goes, it can use Charlotte as a base for tapping markets throughout the United States.
Ambitious, Almond acknowledges. Then he adds: “As Dizzy Dean said, ‘It ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up.’”
Charlotte hasn’t backed it up yet. But it’s on its way, and Germany’s self-imposed greening could help.
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