Business

Energy industry turns toward its fast-moving future

A crew from Argand Energy Solutions installs hardware for additional solar arrays at an airport in Ellenboro in this 2011 photo.
A crew from Argand Energy Solutions installs hardware for additional solar arrays at an airport in Ellenboro in this 2011 photo. jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

The energy industry faces interesting times:

▪ U.S. demand for electricity is flat but potential global growth is enormous.

▪ New technologies are swarming the once-staid industry even as utilities think about extending the operating lives of nuclear power plants to 80 years.

▪ Customers want more control over their energy, and they want it clean.

Executives from two of the biggest utilities, Duke Energy and Atlanta-based Southern Company, chewed on those problems Thursday at a conference hosted by UNC Charlotte’s Energy Production & Infrastructure Center and the energy incubator CLT Joules.

There’s no shortage of visions for future technologies but many are simplistic, said a third speaker, Lawrence Makovich of the energy consulting company IHS CERA. Meanwhile, surprises continue – few predicted the boom in shale gas.

Duke and Southern both embrace an all-of-the-above generating strategy but are burning less coal. Both have mergers in the works with natural gas distribution companies, and both have invested in power plants that turn coal into gas to reduce emissions.

Duke ranked third among U.S. utilities last year for new solar capacity and this month showed off a solar farm for Florida’s Walt Disney World in the shape of Mickey Mouse. Southern is giving away “smart” thermostats to customers who sign up for time-of-use rates, which Duke has not aggressively promoted.

Southern Co. is building two new nuclear plants while Duke has hesitated to move forward with a long-proposed plant in South Carolina.

“Nuclear has to be part of the generating mix if you care about safe, reliable electricity and particularly if you care about clean air,” said Kimberly Green, Southern’s chief operating officer.

As customer demand control and simplicity, Duke is testing new technologies to make them happy. Favorites of Rob Caldwell, senior vice president for distributed energy, are wearable devices to warm or cool an individual.

“We’re about bringing comfort to our customers,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be through a thermostat.”

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

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