UNC Charlotte dedicated a new engineering center Friday that aims to inject fresh life into the region’s expanding energy-industry cluster.
The $76 million Energy Production and Infrastructure Center, called EPIC, opens as the industry faces a need for new infrastructure and an aging workforce. It will produce engineers and research attuned to the power industry’s needs.
Local energy companies – including Duke Energy, Siemens, Westinghouse and Areva – gave $17 million to the center and will collaborate in research and teaching. The first handful of engineers with energy concentrations graduated in December. The center’s goal is about 100 such graduates a year, director Johan Enslin said.
Industry jobs will be waiting, predicted Dhiaa Jamil, Duke’s chief nuclear officer and a member of EPIC’s advisory board. Jamil, a 1978 UNCC grad, worked eight years to convince the university and legislators of the need for the center.
Duke began a generation-long pause in power plant construction – and hiring of engineers – in the 1980s. When a new wave of construction began a few years ago, Duke saw troubling signs as young graduates went through the company’s training programs.
“We started noticing that more of them were having trouble passing the training than in the past,” Jamil said. As universities shifted their training to digital technology, young engineers left school knowing less about the power fundamentals of transformers, motors and relays.
Duke hired two of the first half-dozen UNCC engineering graduates with energy concentrations. “If these kids are graduating but we’re not hiring them, we run the risk of a great idea dying on the vine,” Jamil said.
Energy students will come from a variety of disciplines. The center’s facilities range from smart-grid labs to a four-story test bay.
A forklift capable of lifting 10,000 pounds rose inside the cavernous bay to unfurl a green-and-white “Welcome to EPIC” banner as Chancellor Philip Dubois dedicated the building.
While online learning continues its upward trend, Dubois said, “no one should doubt the value of facilities to allow students hands-on experience and access to researchers.”
Annual energy summit
EPIC also hosted the Charlotte Chamber’s annual energy summit Friday, reporting that 202 energy-related companies now employ more than 25,000 people in the region.
The Research Triangle near Raleigh has earned a name for smart-grid technology and Charlotte for power generation. But several speakers advocated cross-pollination among new and traditional sectors.
The region’s best bet is collaboration among companies instead of competition, said Scott Carlberg, president of E Carolinas, the recently-formed group representing the region’s energy industry.
Collaborative industry “clusters” draw suppliers, driving down costs, and attract workforce talent with transferable skills, added Steve Ott, dean of UNCC’s Belk College of Business. “Clusters,” he said, “just generally work.”
While the region has lost 22,000 jobs since 2007, Ott said, energy produced a net gain of 5,000 jobs.
“The beauty of the energy industry … is that you can’t outsource those jobs,” said Steve Kalland of the N.C. Solar Center at N.C. State University. “You have to be there to operate those systems.”
Gov.-elect Pat McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor and longtime Duke executive, will go to Raleigh armed with campaign pledges to develop the state’s energy resources.
But drilling for underground natural gas deposits in North Carolina isn’t likely to start soon, said summit speaker Jane Lewis-Raymond. The Piedmont Natural Gas general counsel serves on the state board that will develop rules for drilling techniques called fracking.
Those rules will take two years to craft, Lewis-Raymond said, and will then pass to the legislature. Plummeting gas prices further take the sheen off the North Carolina deposits in the eyes of gas producers, she added.
Keynote speaker Larry Makovich, of energy analysis firm IHS CERA, expects a focus on energy efficiency during President Obama’s second term. He predicted solar- and wind-energy tax credits will continue despite a glut of manufacturing capacity in those sectors.