Alternative Energy Generates Optimism
Federal stimulus funding and university-led initiatives are making the southern u.s. states fertile ground for sustainable energy development.
Mark Crawford, Staff Editor, Area Development (Southern Tech Sites 2009)
Recently, the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the U.S. Department of Energy announced they would provide nearly $3 billion in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding for the development of renewable energy projects across the country. The move will provide direct funds to about 5,000 renewable energy production facilities. Key industries include solar energy, wind energy, biomass, and hydrogen for generating clean electricity.

The U.S. southern states have been aggressively developing alternative energy clusters over the past decade, in part because the region is rich with the basic natural ingredients these industries need - plenty of sunshine, areas of high wind, and millions of acres of suitable biomass. So far, individual southern states have received federal ARRA funds ranging from about $25 million to $100 million or more. The money will be used for low-interest loans for renewable energy projects, retrofitting programs in public buildings, and rebates for the purchase and installation of sustainable-energy systems, as well as support research and development in the private sector.

"The recently enacted manufacturing tax credit [30 percent investment tax credit designed to promote manufacturing of clean energy equipment] will give further incentive to manufacturers to invest in new operations in the U.S." says Roger Efird, chairperson of Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and president of Suntech America, a manufacturer of photovoltaic systems. "With the right policies, clean energy will continue robust growth and thousands of new green-collar jobs in manufacturing will be created in states where jobs are needed most."

Solar Energy
According to SEIA, 2008 was the third straight year of record growth for the solar industry, with the installation of 1,265 megawatts of solar power of all types. Much of this growth was in the southern U.S., especially Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, and Texas. Current research includes thin-film photovoltaics, solar cooling systems, storage systems (thermal and electrical), hybrid lighting, nanotechnology applications, and advanced semiconductor materials.

Suniva, a Georgia firm, is building its first solar power cell plant outside Atlanta. The startup company, founded by a former Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) professor who created the proprietary technology Suniva uses in its solar cells, expects to employ about 100 workers. "As the solar industry looks to bring down costs and compete with conventional power, we have built the team and the technology to execute our vision of low-cost, high-efficiency solar energy," says Suniva CEO John Baumstark.

DuPont plans a $55 million expansion of its Fayetteville Works plant in North Carolina to make components for solar panels. When operational, the new section will double DuPont's production of protective backsheets for photovoltaic solar panels. Salaries for the new positions average about $36,278, significantly higher than Bladen County's average annual wage of $25,792. DuPont expects overall sales of its solar panel products for the photovoltaic industry to exceed $1 billion by 2012. "This investment supports the significant increase in the global market demand for clean, renewable energy," says David B. Miller, a DuPont vice president.

Germany-based Wacker Chemie AG, a manufacturer of components for solar energy cells, announced plans for a $1 billion plant near Cleveland, Tennessee, that will produce polysilicon. Hemlock Semiconductor, in partnership with Dow Corning - one of Wacker's major competitors - is also planning to build a $1.2 billion polysilicon plant in Tennessee near Clarksville. Production at both facilities is scheduled for 2012.

State governments are also supporting public-private partnerships. The state of Tennessee recently proposed the $62.5 million Tennessee Solar Institute, to be located at the University of Tennessee and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, for supporting scientific research and industry collaborations to improve the affordability and efficiency of solar products.

Wind Energy

The wind industry has done fairly well during the recession. "We continue to see business activity picking up, with turbine and parts orders being sent all the way up the value chain," says Rob Gramlich, senior vice president of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). The U.S. wind industry accounted for 42 percent of new electricity generation installed nationwide in 2008, and created 35,000 jobs.

Texas is the national leader in wind generation. The state has more than 8,300 installed megawatts and another 1,000 under construction. A new University of Houston research park and a 22-acre testing operation planned near Corpus Christi will focus on developing and testing the next generation of blades, gearboxes and generators from the lightest strongest materials possible. The research center will open in 2010.

Canada-based MaManna Renewable Energy plans to expand its wind turbine business by opening a facility in Greenville, South Carolina. "Demand for our products in the U.S. is the driver of our decision to be more responsive to our current and future customer needs," says Stan Mason, the company's CEO. "Not only will we expand into new markets, but we will also develop new turbine models that will broaden our product offerings."

Arkansas is quickly becoming a cluster for wind technology. Denmark-based LM Glasfiber, the world's leading supplier of wind turbine blades, opened its $150 million North American headquarters and a new manufacturing facility in Little Rock in October 2008, creating about 1,000 jobs. Also coming to Little Rock is Polymarin Composites, a rotor blade manufacturer that will employ about 630 workers at a new $16 million facility. Turbine manufacturer Nordex USA is currently constructing a $100 million, 700-employee manufacturing facility in Jonesboro, Arkansas. The facility will be an original equipment manufacturer producing one of the largest classes of wind turbines in the world, with production scheduled to begin in mid-2010. "We are positioning ourselves for the market surge around the corner," says Ralf Sigrist Nordex's president. "We are absolutely confident that the U.S. wind market will be the biggest in the world."

Biomass Energy
Biomass is in high demand as an alternative power source, with more than $8 billion invested in R&D and infrastructure in 2008. Many of these advances are occurring in the South, where biomass materials - lumber mill waste, cellulose, and sugar cane waste - are abundant.

Florida Crystals in West Palm Beach, Florida, operates one of the largest renewable energy facilities in the world. Crop residue and urban wood waste are burned as fuel to generate renewable electricity. The company has partnered with the University of Florida and Florida International University to research how to produce cellulosic ethanol from sugar cane fiber and wood waste. Also in Florida, British Petroleum (BP) and Verenium Corporation are planning to build a $300 million cellulosic ethanol plant in Highlands County. BP will invest $122 million and Verenium and will receive a 50 percent stake in licensing the company's technology.

Georgia's Energy Innovation Center (EIC) is especially keen on biomass because of the state's abundance of pine forests, agricultural crops, and cellulose waste streams from agriculture and industrial processes. The EIC has worked closely with Range Fuels, a bioenergy company, to produce ethanol from cellulose. Range Fuels is building the nation's first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in Soperton, Georgia, with the help of an $80 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. When operational in mid-2010, the $100 million facility will use a special thermochemical process to convert biomass into biofuel.

Hydrogen Fuel Cells
Almost $200 million has been pledged through ARRA to fund hydrogen research programs. Georgia Tech recently pioneered the use of fuel cell technology in aviation and aerospace, a field long-neglected by hydrogen researchers. The research team successfully flew a hydrogen-powered unmanned aircraft using a fuel-cell system that generates only 500 watts. "That raises a lot of eyebrows," says Adam Broughton, a research engineer who is working on the project in Georgia Tech's Aerospace Systems Design Laboratory (ASDL). "Five hundred watts is plenty of power for a light bulb, but not for the propulsion system of an aircraft this size (22-foot wingspan)."

One of the biggest challenge with commercialization of fuel cell technology is that, so far, it relies on hydrogen as the fuel. Not only is hydrogen difficult and dangerous to store, most of it generated from the mining or consumption of fossil fuels. New research from the University of Virginia is utilizing nanoscale engineering to create "solar cells" that use sunlight to electrochemically split water into oxygen and hydrogen - which could potentially provide a practically limitless, renewable source of hydrogen. An advantage of these new "direct-hydrocarbon solid oxide fuel cells" is that they operate at much lower temperatures, making them more stable and longer-lasting.

Branko Popov, Ph.D., director of the Center of Electrochemical Engineering at the University of South Carolina, is developing new technology that reduces the need for platinum in fuel cells. Platinum is considered the best material for efficient reduction of oxygen in fuel cells, but is costly to mine and purchase, and has a high carbon footprint. Popov's team has developed a carbon composite catalyst process that reduces oxygen almost as efficiently as the best platinum/carbon catalysts, and produces the same amount of energy. "This research at the University of South Carolina is solving the challenges of hydrogen production, storage, and cost," says Shannon Baxter-Clemmons, Ph.D., executive director of the South Carolina Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Alliance. "These breakthroughs have the potential to make the hydrogen and fuel cell industry more affordable sooner."