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Region has power to be a leader on energy

On a fateful day in 1982 Charlotte bankers Tom Storrs and Hugh McColl, relying on North Carolina's unusually flexible policy for branch banking and a permissive federal law they'd lobbied for, completed the purchase of the First National Bank in Lake City, Fla.

It was the first U.S. acquisition of a bank across state lines anywhere across the continent. The audacity and ambition of Storrs and McColl laid the groundwork for Charlotte to become a powerhouse banking center, second only to New York City. Banking in America hasn't been the same since.

Is Charlotte ready for a parallel, 21st-century breakthrough? Can the historic sweep of innovation that led to the institutions now called Bank of America and Wachovia be replicated in another field – a revolutionary change on the energy front?

This time, instead of relying on banking buccaneers, can it be grounded in a mass movement of people and businesses, a cultural shift to cleaner energy and broad-based conservation habits?

Our interviews across the region convinced us it's possible – even necessary.

The old energy paradigm – cheap Middle Eastern oil, 70 percent reliance on imports – is crashing, as we've all discovered at the gas pump. So is the idea of future U.S. energy based on burning chunks of coal. Coal's dangerous pollutants and high emission levels of greenhouse gases that endanger the globe mean its days are numbered.

Prices will fluctuate, maybe even moderate, but what won't change is our national vulnerability.

The United States desperately needs a new energy plan that shrinks oil imports and their staggering $700 billion-a-year drain on our economy. The nation must learn to produce and use electricity without putting vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the air. Superior energy sources are one hope; conservation is another.

This is the critical challenge of our time – economic, environmental, strategic. Our energy consumption is voracious: At 19.4 tons per person per year, each of us generates far more greenhouse gas emissions than any other people of the world. Given the vast damage we inflict on the world, it has become a moral challenge, too.

Will a national energy plan “save” us?

Don't hold your breath. Despite all the vapors over the Potomac, Congress will be hard put to act.

Investment tax credits for solar and wind, critical to developing those industries, expire at year's end. A bill to extend them is stalemated in the U.S. Senate.

The best hope for the nation to start replacing fossil fuels lies with bold, visionary urban regions.

So why not Charlotte?

This region has an edge already.

Whatever its problems, nuclear energy is carbon-free, and Charlotte is a major center for nuclear energy engineering, starting with Duke Energy (a world leader in nuclear energy) plus such globally active nuclear firms as Areva, Toshiba and Westinghouse. Few U.S. regions have two nuclear power plants. Charlotte-trained or -based engineers are advising or working at nuclear plants around the world.

Tony Crumbley, economist for the Charlotte Chamber, told us last spring that the business community is starting to see renewable energy as a major opportunity zone.

“It's an emerging power cluster, one we didn't recognize until recently,” he said.

Crumbley said that in addition to Duke's major nuclear engineering concentration, it's keenly interested in battery development and wide distribution of plug-in outlets for hybrid cars. By its mere presence, he said, Duke has helped attract more than 100 companies to this emerging energy cluster. Shaw, the largest, employs more than 1,000 engineers.

Wind power is growing in the U.S. at a 45 percent-a-year clip. This region may not have a lot of wind, but it's grabbing a piece of this market: Diversified Structural Composites in Hickory makes components for wind turbines. The company has seen its work force double to 30, and officials think that's just the start.

But solar energy has the potential to make the Charlotte area a star.

Duke Energy has contracted with Maryland-based SunEdison, the country's largest solar company, to build a $173 million solar farm in Davidson County. It has a division prepared to spend $40 million to install solar panels on homes and businesses. Duke is legally obligated to get 12.5 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030.

Sencera International announced last summer it's expanding its presence with a plant to build thin-film solar panels. SbM is a smaller voltaic panel manufacturer in Concord. MegaWatt Solar in Hillsborough is into mirror technology that concentrates sunlight into solar cells.

Lisa Lee Morgan, daughter of legendary Duke Power executive Bill Lee, until July 1 was president of a Charlotte-based branch of a Spanish energy firm, Alondra, which develops solar power plants. She and Astrid Chirinos founded Calor Energy, consulting with corporations on using more renewable energy. With its abundance of bright young entrepreneurs and engineers, Morgan told us, Charlotte has a great opportunity to establish itself as a leader in solar and other “green” enterprises. One idea she raises: Create incentives for small businesses to use old textile mills for green-based manufacturing.

“We could become a magnet for the boom that's on its way,” Morgan said.

In the short term, she said, solar should be installed on roofs of industrial buildings near the airport, plus atop uptown's tall structures.

“I'd guess there are a hundred of them with multi-acre roof space,” she said. “Do that, and we're already talking serious megawatts.”

Economic muscle is being applied, too. UNC Charlotte is creating an Energy Production and Infrastructure Center aimed at training engineers and upgrading knowledge in every energy field from nuclear to solar to biofuels.

If you're seeking a candidate to replicate an economic breakthrough akin to Charlotte's historic banking breakthrough, Duke Energy is the logical choice.

It has huge reasons to push for change: It's the nation's third largest corporate emitter of carbon dioxide and is planning not just a nuclear, but a new coal-powered plant to meet growing demand.

Duke can “de-carbonize” its power supply, CEO Jim Rogers told us. He said the moment is ripe for the company to break out of its historic business model – “The more the meters run, the more money we make.”

Rogers said he wants to ditch that old “commodities” model and replace it with “energy optimization” – a program he calls “Save-a-Watt” that would help consumers reduce energy demand through common-sense and/or high-tech steps. The utility would earn new revenues for not selling more power.

The revenue could support home weatherization and offer incentives for energy-efficient appliances and other carbon-saving features. Rogers talked of “putting a portal or dashboard in every home and sensors in every energy-using application.” The little energy hogs around our homes – TV standby functions, idle computers, cell phone chargers, lights left on – would be brought to heel.

He agreed with Morgan about putting solar collectors on rooftops. Earlier this month Duke announced, pending N.C. Utilities Commission approval, the first $100 million plan for solar on business and residential rooftops, enough to generate 16 megawatts.

Duke, Rogers suggested, would earn a negotiated rate of return, as much as 85 percent to 90 percent, of what it would have cost to build and run a plant to produce the amount of electricity the program saves. With “smart meters,” it would have power to cycle appliances like air conditioners on and off during the day to save overall system demand. He said he would accept an independent auditor to ensure that the utility is rewarded only for energy it truly saves.

“We'd have a new mission,” Rogers said, “to make our customers' energy use the most efficient in the world.”

With regulators' OK, he said, he'd be more than happy to jettison Duke's future coal and nuclear expansion plans. He said Duke could be totally “de-carbonized” by 2050. However, utility commissions in five states must approve Save-a-Watt's reversal of historic regulatory practices, to reward customers and the utility for not using more energy.

And the commissions are skeptical. So are some environmentalists, who aren't convinced Duke should receive so much revenue from the avoided costs of not building more power plants. Suspicions have been high and decisions slow.

And one also hears of heel-draggers, wed to the traditional business model, within Duke itself. The risks are real: a highly energy-dependent company such as Nucor, facing higher rates and believing it has already achieved almost all possible energy savings, might be tempted to move plants offshore.

Yet here is stark reality: A globe-wide search for new ways to create and pay for more affordable and sustainable energy sources is under way and moving fast.

The direct question for the Charlotte region: Do you still have the hunger to get ahead, get out front? Is there the “bandwidth” to take this on? California a generation ago became the national leader in conservation. It might again.

What about Charlotte?

As Lisa Lee Morgan put it, “Let's not use up all our energies fighting the old ways. Let's just replace the old ways, as rapidly as we can.”

Indeed. Why couldn't the people of this region – not just corporate types – ignite a culture change, adopt saving practices and make them habits?

Just a little into a discussion of the burgeoning interest in how the Charlotte region could be a transformative leader on energy, SouthPark-area resident Jeff Harris, a recent transplant from Atlanta, said it best: “Why not us?”

That's the spirit.

Now come strategy and execution.