Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Green & clean round table: Sustainability for the planet and profitability

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More North Carolina businesses are integrating sustainability into their business strategy, realizing they can do well by doing good. Business North Carolina gathered a panel of experts to discuss their sustainability programs and how they are working to improve conditions in our state as well as improve their bottom line.

Raglan and UNC Charlotte sponsored the discussion.
It was moderated by Ben Kinney, publisher of Business North Carolina. It was edited for brevity and clarity.


AUSSIEKER: I’m Amy Aussieker, executive director of Envision Charlotte. We’re a nonprofit that’s been around about 12 years. Our first big project was our energy efficiency program. We worked with the largest buildings in Uptown Charlotte to reduce energy use by up to 20% over five years. We saw a 19.2% reduction in 61 buildings, which was $26 million in savings. From there, we started looking at sustainability a little more holistically. In the last few years, we’ve really transitioned to the circular economy approach. Basically a zero waste society. We’ve gone from focusing just on energy to  looking at sustainability because it gives businesses a lot more opportunities around savings and doing better by planet Earth.

WRIGHT: I’m Daniel Wright, I’ve been with Pike Electric for 15 years. I was on the construction side for 14 years, and recently I’ve been on the engineering side, which is my academic background. Pike is a 78-year-old, privately owned company started in Mount Airy, which is my hometown. We engineer, construct and maintain the electrical infrastructure for over 300 customers, who are predominately investment owned utilities, cooperatives and municipalities. We’re working in more than 40 states. Predominantly we’re mostly concentrated in the southeast with our engineering headquarters in Fort Mill, South Carolina.

LOOMIS: What we have here in the Carolinas is a true energy industry cluster and we’re in the midst of working to integrate with the economic development community. E4 Carolinas works to connect the dots on the fact that energy is no longer just an enabler of other more traditional economic development clusters such as automotive, aerospace or life sciences. Energy has become its own cluster. Our organization is an energy trade association. We have over 150 member organizations from all aspects of the energy industry — small, large, investors and utilities service companies, consultants, lawyers, education. We’re working to connect the organizations who have any footprint in the energy industry in the Carolinas. Our mission is to grow the Carolinas’ energy economy. We do that primarily through economic development and workforce development. On the workforce development side, we have programs with Historically Black Colleges and Universities. We also have a leadership program from an economic development perspective. We have various research activities that are taking place to identify the value chain associated with different aspects of the energy industry, advanced nuclear, hydrogen energy storage and electric vehicles. One of those most recent grants is through UNC Charlotte’s award from the National Science Foundation’s Regional Innovation Engines. We are a little over 11 years old and enjoy a growing membership.

TILLMAN: At Raglan, I think we’re emblematic of the changes that are occurring within North Carolina. My co-founder and I, and most of our team, are actually from the mid-Atlantic originally. We’re not born and bred North Carolinians, but Raglan is a 100% veteran owned and operated company. We were founded in 2020 out of Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach to be an innovative mobility and technology solutions company. We first wanted to attack the pain points that existed within classic car ownership as well as their perception of EVs. Our forward facing consumer product right now is a fully bespoke, completely restored, fully electrified Land Rover Defender.  

We’ve expanded our operations the last year to include technology solutions across a myriad of different platforms, including legacy vehicles within the Department of Defense. Our goal is to play a role in helping the EV revolution via full spectrum mobility transition of the U.S. fleet through combustion engine conversions. Our belief is that it’s just not going to happen on an Original Equipment Manufacturer level, there has to be a whole approach to transitioning the resources we’ve already harvested and have already dedicated manufacturing hours to.

LIZOTTE: I’m the university sustainability officer at UNC Charlotte. It’s a requirement for all the UNC campuses to have one. I’ve been here almost 10 years. A lot of the role is tied to construction that’s going on because the whole system continues to grow. I also work with waste management. We get involved a bit in curriculum and the research that comes out of the laboratories. For example, we’ll run workshops for the faculty on incorporating sustainability into more and more of the curriculum. We are the urban research university for the state, so we pay particular attention to urban, large scale problems. 

OLSEN: I started my first O2 company in 2009 with only one client who wanted to enter the business of engineering and building solar power plants. I want to thank Pike, who helped us get the lights on. We were consulting for PIKE to learn how a private non-utility company could design, develop, own, and operate utility scale solar power plants because it really hadn’t been done before by non-utility companies. By 2011, we had built the Mayberry Solar Farm in Mount Airy, and Avery Solar, near Grandfather Mountain in Newland. Over the next several years, O2 became what’s called an independent power producer, developing, owning and operating large scale solar power plants across North Carolina. 

But we also have been trying to create sustainable business models in the areas of agriculture and hospitality. One of our largest projects, the Montgomery Sheep Farm, is in Biscoe in Montgomery County. Even though there’s a 28-megawatt solar farm there, we use it as a research station for sustainable agriculture and energy on the same piece of land. We saw that one of the largest costs for operating solar farms was maintaining the vegetation. We started a company called Sun Raised Farms that used sheep to maintain the vegetation on these solar farms. After the growing season, the sheep needed a new home because we didn’t want to feed them all winter. So we started Sun Raised Foods to develop the market for lamb in North Carolina. We have lamb cuts and lamb salami that we sell to retailers, local restaurants, and our farm-to-table dinners. Also, we invested in a bed-and-breakfast because we felt like the hospitality industry needed more sustainability in the business model. We bought the Lovell House Inn in Boone and created a microgrid to power the property by solar power and have implemented a lot of sustainable activities.


AUSSIEKER: We have several programs in different buckets. We have an education piece and a lot of volunteer engagement activities with some of the companies here and several business solutions that we’re working on. For example, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and actually every municipality, has a problem with glass. There is too much glass. Right now, Charlotte sends glass to Atlanta. It costs more to ship it than it’s worth. It’s about 18,000 tons per year, and that’s just from the residential side. 

We are working with two entrepreneurs on this. Peaceful Ponds, they do outdoor water features, partnered with us. They bought us a glass crusher and sifter, so we are crushing glass. Another entrepreneur, Resource Flooring, takes the glass, which ends up becoming sand. They use it as an aggregate in concrete and are now pouring floors around the Charlotte area using this glass. We have two concrete companies who are testing the different types of glass because it’s not virgin glass. It’s wine and milk bottles that have some residue. They want to see how it stands up on durability and weather proofing. The number one thing businesses ask me is: how are you going to scale it? Sometimes I think we need to think of scaling differently because scaling is what got us in this problem. We have three big recyclers of glass around the country. We’re looking at a way to maybe build eight hubs around Charlotte so that these little glass crushers can take down about three tons of glass a day. 

LOOMIS: The conversation about creating local hubs is so appropriate. It’s something we’re digging into with E4 Carolinas around solar recycling. The recycling of solar panels is becoming a challenge and they’re going to overwhelm landfills if we don’t figure it out. That transportation cost to recycle solar panels is just exorbitant. We need a whole community approach for sure. That’s part of the conversation we at E4 Carolinas are working hard to have with the Economic Development Associations in both Carolinas and the member organizations. The traditional economic development metrics don’t reward the hyperlocal small win approach. They honor the big box approach and we’re running out of land and we’re running out of people, quite frankly, who can work there. Not that we should move away from the big box solutions, and the workforce opportunities they bring, but it’s going to take this sort of whole of the community — local communities, state communities, regional communities — conversation to get us to the next place that we need to be as the energy transition continues.


OLSEN: I’ll jump in a little on the recycling issue. My wife is Norwegian and I get a chance to see what they’re doing in Oslo compared to what we’re doing here in Charlotte. I think we all noticed, especially during COVID, the amount of plastics that’s accumulating. From 2019 to 2021, China basically quit taking our plastic, which was our solution for recycling plastic. So now, about any sort of plastic container that doesn’t have a lid is being landfilled.

AUSSIEKER: Let me interrupt, you can bring it to the (Envision Charlotte Innovation) Barn. We don’t landfill it. 

OLSEN: That’s fantastic. But in general, I think something like 90% of what we use in the county was being thrown away and I see that as a huge economic opportunity. In Europe they have waste-to-energy plants, but we just haven’t been able to get around the clean air regulations for that (in the United States.) We need policies at the state level and the federal level that provide an incentive to efficiently get rid of the most hazardous things like chemicals and batteries. Whereas in other countries, they seem to have figured it out in a way that’s not creating new landfills. 

LIZOTTE: We’re large enough to collect a lot of waste on campus that we can try to handle very locally. We can buy equipment if we can show that we’ve got enough material and we can do some processing on campus. But we’ve struggled a lot with food waste and yard waste. Quite a bit of our diversion is sending materials to a composter that’s 35 miles away. That’s too far of a distance to be shipping a significant part of the waste stream that literally has to move every day. The next closest option we have in North Carolina is 85 miles away. So we’re severely underdeveloped in being able to recycle organic materials. It’s a missed opportunity that could fit quite nicely into the kind of idea Joel was sharing about a farm economy. If you look at other states in the United States, their agriculture departments have greatly developed the ability to handle materials and convert materials in rural areas. We only have 12 commercial composters with capacity that could handle a customer our size.

TILLMAN: There’s difficulty in recycling EV batteries at the moment. It’s a technology and chemistry problem based on the materials and the different recycling methods. One of the best ways of exploring innovation actually is finding applications for materials that are already harvested. EV batteries are actually very versatile in their own right as stores of power. They are also quite mobile. Our solution is to take an EV battery that may be in a wrecked vehicle, but it only has 30,000 miles on it. It can be used for upwards of 300,000 miles. Taking those batteries and being able to repurpose them across a myriad of former combustion engine vehicles is really a two-for-one solution. 

WRIGHT: We’re working with folks like Joel in the renewables arena doing a lot of engineering and construction work in the solar arena, as well as building those interconnecting distribution tie lines to bring that generation onto the grid. We’re also doing a lot of work in battery energy storage. Up to last year, most of that work was taking place in Florida and Texas. But we’re really starting to see more in North Carolina. It’s starting to come online in a big way. A third lane for Pike is in E.V. charging stations. They’re coming online all over the place in parking decks, hotels and other commercial areas. We’re doing a lot of designing and bringing those online. I think what I’m most excited about is the internal focus on our transportation fleet. We have over 13, 000 employees at Pike and well over 9,000 pieces of rolling equipment. We are at the front of the line and ordering an all new hybrid bucket truck. I think these are going to be a game changer in our space. Once you are in the working mode, you shut off the engine and have a secondary power pack powering an electric motor. And that is what is powering the hydraulic boom and the bucket instead of keeping the truck running.


TILLMAN: Energy efficiency problems are largely solved by technology and advances in science. So these types of things draw people from the rest of the country and from research institutions. We’re creating jobs here and encouraging a talent flow. 

AUSSIEKER: From a different perspective, a lot of the companies that we work with volunteer (in sustainable opportunities) every month. You can tell sustainability is highly important to their employees. I think for the attraction and retention of employees, it’s uber important.

OLSEN: Let me say a few things about why sustainability makes sense. Amy mentioned that Charlotte has the second-largest tree canopy in the United States and that represents a tremendous value for people who want to move to Charlotte. It represents a quality of life you can’t get in Atlanta, or Mobile, Alabama, or Florida. So there’s a value to preserving our natural assets. Also, we’ve demonstrated that solar energy is cheaper than coal and it can be competitive with natural gas, especially during heat periods. So when you look at reducing your operational costs as a company, it only makes sense. Sustainability should be about profitability. It should be about this circular economy which lowers the cost to do business. Now, when we talk about Gen Z, I think I’ve seen surveys that up to 80% would pay more for a product that is more sustainable. As much as some people like to malign sustainability, it’s really about  profitability and success in the coming decades.


LIZOTTE: We talk about regulations sometimes getting in the way of projects, but I think this is a story, too, for North Carolina to celebrate. We have had some political leadership and some policies that really helped us out and created demand at a time when maybe it wasn’t really there. In our case, the state government regulations that said we had to reduce energy use and buildings by 30% and water use by 50% and most of the agencies met those goals. I think the avoided costs are approaching $2 billion. That saved somebody something or somebody wasn’t taxed because of those savings. That’s a success. The state created a demand when maybe the demand wasn’t there in the private sector. 

OLSEN: One thing that I think is critical, and I’ve worked on this a little bit because
I’m based in north Mecklenburg County, is we’ve talked about a red line that would connect the northern part of Mecklenburg County with the city center for a long time and nothing has happened. 

The biggest economic creator we have in North Carolina is the Charlotte airport. We have 48 million people flying through our airport every year. But, it is an island separated from the rest of the city. There’s not a good, easy way to get from the airport to the city center. The only public transportation we have there is a 38-minute bus shuttle. Otherwise you’ve got to rent a car or drive or take a taxi. We need to tie our airport, by far one of the biggest employers and certainly one the biggest economic creators of the entire state, to our city center to benefit our businesses and to make North Carolina not only a destination, but a place where you want to locate your headquarters. There are so many pieces to this, but it’s rooted in the fact that we need to reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicle trips in our city to reduce our traffic. I’ve been enthralled by Elon Musk’s Boring Company, and its idea of a publicly owned system of electrical vehicles that would ride in tunnels. In Las Vegas, you can see an example of how that’s working. They’ve recently done 29 miles of tunnels, or at least voted for it. That could connect our biggest economic generator to our biggest city in less than five minutes, helping to bring more business to downtown Charlotte and to the rest of the area.


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