Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Powering NC: As N.C. marches toward a clean energy future, the local electric cooperatives are at the forefront of innovation


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      Thanks to the efforts of a local electric membership cooperative, the North Carolina Zoo advanced its mission
to contribute to a greener future when it acquired a revolutionary tractor.
     It’s not your granddaddy’s tractor. It’s electric.
     Last year, North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives and Randolph Electric Membership Corp. reached out to the zoo to gauge interest in partnering with them in a yearlong pilot project to gather performance measurements with a goal of deploying electrified equipment on farms across the state.
     The project has been called the future of sustainable farming technology and the zoo is just the starting point. It is just one step toward the clean energy environment North Carolina envisions in the coming years.
     Through its partnership with the zoo, Randolph EMC will examine various usage data, including how much energy the tractor consumes, how often its battery needs to be charged, its overall performance, and the amount of money the tractor saves on fuel and maintenance costs.

(top) North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives and Randolph Electric Membership Corp. partnered with the N.C. Zoo to support the new all-electric tractor introduction. Laura Trantham, an interior horticulture technician at the North Carolina Zoo, uses an electric tractor to add mulch to rows of trees in one of the zoo’s browse gardens.(below) North Carolina’s first electric school bus serving the public school system arrived in Randolph County in 2023 and runs on power provided by Randolph Electric Membership Cooperative.

     Michael Trent, vice president of member services and public relations at Randolph EMC, is the pioneer behind its electric vehicles and innovative energy programs. The idea for collaborating with the zoo was born out of the annual National Drive Electric Week, celebrated at the zoo.
     “The North Carolina Electric Cooperatives was searching for a place to experiment with an electric tractor in a real-world environment and measure both the environmental benefits and costs of operating it, and we thought the zoo would be a good fit,” Trent says.
     The Solectrac electric tractor is manufactured in California and distributed through a partnership with Nolan Manufacturing of Denton, North Carolina. Trent said the compact tractor cost $39,000 and the cost was split between the zoo and the NCEMC. Painted royal blue, it resembles a typical gas-powered tractor and will run for six to eight hours on a single charge.
     At the zoo, operators are using the Solectrac to shovel dirt, pick up mulch and perform other types of light landscaping chores.
     The Randolph EMC, founded in 1935 to bring electricity to rural communities in central North Carolina, is owned by its 32,000 members who live in parts of Randolph, Moore, Montgomery, Chatham and Alamance counties. It is one of the 26 electric cooperatives that are members of the North Carolina Electric Membership Corp.
     “We work with our local community and support them in innovation,” Trent says. “We are environmental stewards the local level and leaders across the nation.”
     The Randolph EMC will share the electric tractor’s data with other cooperatives and North Carolina at large.
      The zoo’s electric tractor project is The zoo’s electric tractor project is part of the NCEMC’s “Brighter Future Vision,” an initiative that incorporates more carbon-free sources of power generation with a goal of achieving a 50% reduction from 2005 carbon emission levels by 2030 and to be net zero by 2050.
    “We’re pro-active with our approach and our goals mirror the State of North Carolina’s overall clean energy goals, and the way we get there is constantly evolving,” says Jim Musilek, vice president of innovation and business development strategic management at NCEMC. “Our Brighter Future Vision is our guiding principle, and our member cooperatives are nimble, innovative and mission driven.”
     If he’s optimistic about hitting the  2030 and 2050 goals, then he’s laser focused on keeping the grid reliable through innovation, keeping sustainability at the forefront.
     “We’ve done a lot of experimentation with the technology that’s driving our industry, and we want to be out in front of what’s coming,” Musilek says. “We’re also working closely with our local communities on these initiatives, because that’s really our core business.”
     The North Carolina Governor’s Office is also looking down the road as it moves toward accomplishing the 2025 goals in Gov. Roy Cooper’s Executive Order 80: “North Carolina’s Commitment to Address Climate Change and Transition to a Clean Energy Economy.”
     The goals include reducing statewide greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 2005 levels, increasing the number of registered, zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) to at least 80,000, and reducing energy consumption per square foot in state-owned buildings by at least 40% from fiscal year 2002-2003 levels.
     Peter Ledford, North Carolina’s clean energy director, says the state will come close to meeting the goals, but the Department of Environmental Quality’s 2022 report projected two of them may fall short.
     “The report projected we were going to hit a 30% reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2025,” he says. “We’re expecting the 2023 report to be more optimistic, but I don’t know yet whether it’s going to project us getting to 40% statewide by 2025.”
     Further, the Utility Savings Initiative Report shows there had been a 33% reduction in energy consumption in state government buildings, including the UNC university system in 2022. That is 7% below the 2025 goal, Ledford says.
     He is more optimistic about hitting the targeted volume of 80,000 registered electric vehicles, which continues to expand, especially as the new VinFast electric car factory in Chatham County begins delivering cars in a few manufacturing plant begins putting vehicles in the marketplace. Ledford predicts the state will make its zero-emission vehicle goal a year early.
     “Between 2022 and 2023, we saw a 50% increase, and as of last October, we had 79,274 ZEVs registered,” he says.
     He attributes the growth to changing perceptions among consumers, and improvements in both vehicle technology and expansion of charging stations.
     “These are no longer niche vehicles with a limited range. They have become mainstream, capable of driving more than 300 miles on a charge,” he says. “And as we expand the charging infrastructure, the availability of fast chargers near highways, and community chargers for people without residential charging terminals, adoption of this technology is going to continue to increase.”
     By 2030, the goal is to have a million registered zero-emission vechiles in the state. There are now more than 3.2 million total registrations.
    “If we keep increasing by 50% year after year, my calculations show we will hit that target,” he says.
     Adding vehicle charging stations in rural parts of the state will also help put more electric vehicles on the road.
     Between 2009 and 2016, Volkswagen sold more than a half million diesel-engine vehicles with devices designed to avoid federal emissions tests. The company later agreed to a $14.7 billion settlement, with $2.7 billion designated for an independent mitigation trust that would be administered by local governments. North Carolina’s portion
was $92 million.
     Musilek reported that in 2019 the EMC board of directors set aside $1 million dollars to install chargers around the state.
     “Between the funding we put in place and some of the Volkswagen settlement money, we have installed 100 chargers – a combination of the DC fast chargers and level two chargers in rural areas across the state,” he says.
     In addition to charging stations and the electric tractor project, the NCEMC is concentrating its efforts on the farms, businesses, and homes in the communities its members serve.Its member co-ops currently maintain 19 community solar farms around
the state.
     The NCEMC is also developing microgrids for support and resiliency. Five microgrids are operational now.
     “Along with electric vehicles, resiliency is going to be one of our primary areas of focus,” Musilek says. “We have over 90 megawatts of substation batteries and as we move forward, we will continue to expand,”
     As the state marches toward its goal of attaining carbon neutrality by 2050, clean energy innovation, development, and deployment will be at the forefront. The NCEMC and its members are on board.
     “We are going to have to embrace new technologies, and it will be a continued evolution and continuous learning,” Musilek says.
     At the North Carolina Zoo, the collaboration with Randolph EMC is a natural fit. According to Musilek, the zoo has also worked closely with the local electric co-op on several other innovative projects, including deployment of other types of electric vehicles and charging stations.
     “We are thinking outside the box with many of the projects we are working on these days,” says Musilek. “Bringing new solutions like this to the communities we serve is all part of the cooperative difference we strive to make.”

Jeff Soplop

Artificial Intelligence is smoothing the path to efficient energy management.
By Teri Saylor

     After two decades in the energy sector, Jeff Soplop drew from his experience to launch Nimble Energy, a Pittsboro-based start-up that uses AI technology to optimize energy management. It was a concept that didn’t exist when he first embarked on his career.
     Nimble Energy is just what its name suggests, an energy management solution using artificial intelligence to deliver usage data in real time, enabling users to act quickly and manage energy consumption efficiently.
      A report by Ernst & Young calls AI “a game changer for renewable energy” because of its powerful prediction capabilities leading to improved demand, forecasting and asset management.
     Soplop cites shifting energy needs on both the supplier side and customer side which complicate management efforts.
     “Technology has delivered smart thermostats to conform to consumer behavior while suppliers are working to shift to renewable energy generation,” he says. “Balancing modern energy generation with consumer demand is becoming more complicated and expensive for both sides, especially when older buildings are in use and building managers are not up to speed on the latest energy technology.”
     Most building owners and operators for homes, businesses or industries have long relegated energy use to simple concepts like adjusting the thermostat for the hours a building wasn’t being used to save money. But wasted energy continues to be an issue.
     “Buildings waste tons of energy, yet most building operators lack the energy management resources and tools needed to reduce that waste,” Soplop says.
     He says that 30% of energy used in commercial buildings is squandered, which translates into $42 billion in energy wasted in the U.S. alone each year. Much of this loss can be attributed to operational issues.
    “Buildings are dynamic and many of the issues and areas of opportunity that arise in buildings come from problems such as equipment breakdowns, malfunctioning schedule issues, or a shift in occupancy behavior,” he says. “But there are always new technology options.”
     In the commercial and industrial world, energy management has typically been services oriented, relying on teams of data scientists, financial analysts, energy managers and engineers, Soplop says. But for many organizations, employing a large team is not financially possible, and managing energy usage can be a slow, plodding process for commercial and industrial buildings.
     The Nimble Energy platform acts like a virtual team for companies and organizations by allowing AI to do everything from evaluating facilities 24/7, to helping seek out opportunities for savings, evaluate new technology, crunch the numbers, generate economic models, and analyze the likely impact on energy use.
     “We’re taking a different approach,” Soplop says. “It’s still data centric, but we leverage the best of AI analytics, as well as behavioral science methods to engage users and influence energy efficiency.
    Nimble Energy also steps into a consulting role by helping companies set energy management goals, project performance, and build out budgets. The platform can also perform energy audits and implement projects, measure results, and determine whether clients are getting the performance they expected.
     “We’re also helping clear client barriers by matching them with financing options and helping them find incentive and rebate programs, because most buildings are eligible for dozens of incentives and rebates at the federal, state and local levels,” Soplop says.
    Nimble Energy launched in July 2023, and has so far attracted over a half dozen clients to its platform. Last October, Triangle-based Primordial Ventures added Nimble Energy to its 2023 portfolio.
     The platform is a software-as-a-service model and clients pay subscription fees based on the number of facility meters they have installed. The North Carolina company has a national reach and has its sights set on global opportunities.
    Soplop has devoted his career to working in climate tech. The James Madison University science and technology grad also has master’s degrees in economics from Duke University and Johns Hopkins University and a master’s degree in journalism and mass communications from UNC-Chapel Hill.
    He previously held roles leading energy and software solutions at major corporations including Rockwell, ICF, and Brightly, and was drawn to the idea of applying behavioral science concepts to the way consumers manage energy, particularly in buildings.
    Nimble Energy looks to transform energy management in multi-site projects, like commercial building complexes, government and public buildings, utilities and K-12 schools. The company is also beginning to explore applications for industrial plants and individual buildings.
    “Based on my experience, I knew where the technology could have the fastest impacts,” Soplop says. “But I think as we scale, there could be a version of our solution that’s designed for single building owners and operators as well as leasing agents.”
    By working with a wide range of sectors, Soplop and his team can expand their solutions for organizations that have many assets to manage and generally thin teams with limited resources.
    For one thing, the building   management workforce is undergoing a transformation as the boomer generation begins to phase out.
    “I think across that workforce, they’re expecting about 50% to retire in the next 10 years,” Soplop says “Plus, there is a huge demand for people with energy expertise who can do the work, and training is becoming important for those who want to enter this industry.”
    He touts the opportunities AI brings to the marketplace to augment and support teams in a new way by providing them with capabilities that they have not been able to afford before.
     “There are many different types of technology, programs and financing options in the marketplace, and AI can help managers examine the assets and resources they are responsible for and enable them to craft the best strategy for achieving their goals,” he says.“We’re cutting through the noise to find the signal, and with the ongoing energy transition, it’s extremely noisy right now.

— Teri Saylor is a freelance writer from Raleigh.


UNC Charlotte students can complete the energy concentration with an engineering major.

The Energy Production and Infrastructure Center at UNC Charlotte is working to help the energy industry find workers and create a sustainable future.
By Chris Roush

     The 12-year-old operation, housed in the Lee College of Engineering, has more than
$22 million in external research funding, which it is primarily using to conduct studies with industry companies. And nearly 1,000 students have gone through its concentration.
    “Right now is the time to get into this career,” says executive director Mike Mazzola, who is also the Duke Energy distinguished chair in Power Engineering Systems. “The energy transformation — the energy decarbonization of the entire global economy — has got to happen in 30 years. That’s about the right sweet spot of a career. So getting into it right now is the best time.”
    In North Carolina, HB 951, which was signed by Gov. Roy Cooper in October 2021, requires the electrical power system to be carbon neutral, reliable and affordable, by 2050, and to cut power sector carbon emissions 70% by 2030. That means companies that are using coal to create electricity will need to use more solar and wind power to create the energy needed for consumers and businesses.
    Mazzola says one of the most exciting research areas for future energy consumption is integrating the customer into the system. Smart thermometers in houses and buildings will be used, with the approval of the customer, to change energy consumption when the grid needs to adjust. That will mean social scientists, as well as engineers, will find jobs in the industry.
    “Some people are perfectly happy to put on a sweater or a robe,” says Mazzola, an electrical engineer by training. “But other people would rather have more control of their environment. Understanding those nuances is absolutely one of the hottest areas of research.”
     The Center also worked with more than 250 regional energy companies, including Duke Energy, Siemens and Westinghouse. Many of them are mentoring students who are in EPIC’s certificate program. “That makes a big difference,” says Mazzola. “It gives students who most often don’t know what type of engineering they want to do a perspective. They see the jobs and the very articulate and motivated engineers who come to EPIC.”
    UNC Charlotte students can complete the certificate in all four engineering departments and the engineering technology program at the College of Engineering.
    The Center’s industry involvement is key to its success, says Mazzola. Energy executives comprise its board of advisors and oversee its strategy.
    “Why Charlotte?” asks Mazzola. “Charlotte is not just a regional center for the electrical power industry. It’s a national center.

— Chris Roush is executive editor at Business North Carolina.

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