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April 2010
UNC Charlotte Energizes the Region
By Zenda Douglas

     With just a glance through the windows of his office in Duke Centennial Hall, College of Engineering Dean Robert Johnson can watch UNC Charlotte and the Charlotte economy growing.

     Construction on the new 200,000-square-foot building, the Energy Production and Infrastructure Center (EPIC), is underway. The project applies brick and mortar to a program that promises expanded and enhanced collaboration between the university and the energy industry in the Charlotte region, yielding academic and economic growth for the benefit of engineering students, energy research, energy and power companies, employers and new professionals.

     The ongoing result is anticipated to be an ever-vigorous Charlotte energy hub that is underpinned by energy industry and university partnerships, cutting-edge research, state-of-the-art facilities and an ample industry-ready work force. Together these will further economic development for the region as well as safer, more efficient power for the region, nation and world.

     Dr. Steve Patterson, SPX Distinguished Professor of Engineering and the EPIC’s interim director, describes the fundamental nature of the collaboration between the regional energy industries and the university as “one that is truly a joint industrial and university activity.”

     UNC Charlotte’s parenting of the EPIC is very much coupled with the growth of Charlotte itself.

     “UNC Charlotte is the right place for this,” declares Dhiaa Jamil, chief nuclear officer for Duke Energy and chair of the EPIC Advisory Board, “Charlotte is a true national hub for energy.”

     Patterson points out energy companies operating in the area including AREVA, Westinghouse, Toshiba, URS/Washington, and Siemens.

     Project manager for the Charlotte Research Institute’s “Open for Business” initiative, Scott Carlberg, puts it this way: “We have a world premier power generator in Duke Energy, a world class gas utility in Piedmont Natural Gas, numerous other power companies and a world-known research institute (EPRI)—the last piece of the puzzle is having a strong university presence in energy research education.”

     Through “Open for Business,” Carlberg has engaged scores of businesses to develop a model for universities to use in forming partnerships with business communities.

     “The EPIC is unique, but the Charlotte region with its combination of business, civic and educational components is also special,” says Patterson. “The region has great potential because it combines all of those elements in a manner that trades on a high caliber of ethics and a high caliber of people.”


A Powerful Start

     The first seed for the EPIC was planted in 2004 when two members of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Advisory Board met with Dean Johnson. Duke Energy’s Jamil and Tessera’s (formerly Digital Optics) Mark Boomgarden, expressed awareness and concern that after the power industry stopped building in the 1970s through the ’90s due to decreased demand, students had given their attention to other areas.

     “Engineers with an energy background were very few and far between,” says Jamil, “We needed to figure out how to remedy that to avoid a huge shortage in work force.”

     The breakthrough came at a power breakfast in 2006 among UNC Charlotte Chancellor Philip L. Dubois, Provost Joan Lorden, Dean Johnson, Tom Christopher (then CEO of AREVA USA, a French nuclear power company) and several faculty members.

     “Tom Christopher was concerned about the size of the work force in light of increased demand, and warning of a looming energy crisis,” recounts Johnson. “Christopher was from the industry sector saying this is a real crisis to hit America very soon—saying the brownouts of California will hit the Southeast in the next five years. You’re going to get home and turn the lights on and not have any power.

     “When they heard the same story from the CEO of a major power company as we had been warning of, it really got their attention,” continues Johnson.

     Shortly thereafter, Jeff Merrifield from Shaw Power Group, Jamil from Duke Energy and Jim Little from URS/Washington were dispatched to Raleigh to meet with Marc Basnight and other legislators to essentially say, “this is something you need to fund because the energy and power industry is important for this region, the state and the country,” says Johnson.

     “The concept of a (physical) EPIC began to gel when the state of North Carolina allocated construction funds,” affirms Johnson. State funds were allocated in two pieces with an initial $19 million for design and site work which was occurring by the summer of 2007. The following year the state funded the remaining $56.2 million. Some $4 million was later lost to budget cuts.

     “I’m really pleased to see the investment that North Carolina is making in the infrastructure of the project and in the economic development of the Charlotte region,” expresses Robert Wilhelm, associate provost for Strategic Research Partnerships and executive director of the Charlotte Research Institute.

     “Industry communicated strongly with the legislative delegation,” he explains. “They were key to having state funds directed to UNC Charlotte for the building and faculty recruitment.” An additional $5 million in recurring funds was requested for hiring new faculty, $2 million of which has been received by the EPIC. The University will request the balance in the next budget cycle.

     “We need lots of people,” declares Johnson. “In order to graduate several hundred engineers in this area every year, we’ve got to scale up our efforts dramatically.” Jamil echoes this opinion: “Our desire is to have the best energy-focused engineering school in the country if not the world. We need a world-class faculty for that.”

     According to Carlberg, the state funding of the EPIC represented the only new project money in the university system last year. All funds for brick and mortar are from the state; federal funds will be sought to support various research activities. Wilhelm reports that UNC Charlotte faculty and R&D staff from area companies are in discussions about research projects that may be funded by the federal government.


A Solid Foundation

     The pouring of concrete follows other foundations laid down in recent years through essential intellectual, political and funding groundwork.

     In some sense, the EPIC has been up and running for about six years now,” offers Patterson. “Once the building is completed, the program will have more of a presence because having a building gives a program a certain cache,” he admits.

     The EPIC Advisory Board, formed in 2008, is comprised of senior executives from many of the large power companies in the region including Duke Energy, AREVA, EPRI, Shaw Group, Siemens, Tessera, URS/Washington and Westinghouse. It is charged with insuring that curriculum design and research objects are in keeping with the industry’s need for work force and advancement.

     Each member has put in approximately $10,000 to sustain operations. This fund covers conferences, outreach and recruitment searches. The EPIC is currently recruiting for nine new faculty members and a Center director. Many of the member companies have contributed by establishing scholarships.

     The Board is now seeking more support from industry to establish endowments for professors. Support is expected for physical facilities as well, according to Patterson. “Some state-of-the-art equipment for students may be sponsored,” says Patterson.

     The number one goal is an industry-ready, interdisciplinary work force; number two, research. UNC Charlotte has a terrific reputation for applied research,” says Carlberg, adding, “EPIC wouldn’t be here without industry; industry wouldn’t be as robust without EPIC.”


Conventional and Alternative

     “The EPIC attracts strong interest from nuclear, oil, coal and gas—the conventional sectors of the energy industry,” says Wilhelm. “Together with our other research centers, we have the opportunity to work with alternative interests including biomass, solar, smart-grid technology, wind, and others.”

     “The reality is that if North Carolina doesn’t build more conventional power plants, the state will run out of energy very fast,” says Johnson. He goes on to say that we cannot rely on wind and solar in the foreseeable future. “If you’re going to have a strong economy, you have to have conventional power plants. I think the state recognizes this, but it’s a pretty hot potato.”

     Regarding the nuclear power debate, Patterson offers: “People tend to make relatively quickly-formed opinions almost always based on relative ignorance regarding nuclear power. It requires thought and understanding of the issues.” Patterson notes the irony of significant factions of Greenpeace now supporting nuclear energy because it doesn’t emit carbon dioxide—a sea change in thinking.

     Some companies that you expect to be narrowly slotted to conventional means are in fact quite interested in working across a wide range, according to Patterson. Having a lot of technical expertise, they are able to recognize how these pieces will play together.

     “This is apparent in the faculty as they work on photo voltaic or interesting conservation measures because conservation is effectively the same as generation at some level.” Patterson says, “AREVA provides an example of this. While they feel that they can do a great job making entirely safe nuclear power plants, they have a great interest in other energy forms because they can also create large bio-energy installations.”

     “That’s why I like my “Technology in Society class”,” shares Patterson. “It teaches people how to think for themselves on these issues. A very major service to the state is to broadly educate a more discerning and critically thinking population.”

     With nearly 25,000 students, UNC Charlotte is the fourth largest of the University of North Carolina system’s 16 institutions. There are 3,000 students in the College of Engineering. UNC Charlotte has the 30th largest mechanical engineering (M.E.) program in the country.

     “If we have the well-trained graduates and the energy businesses here, we have a very important base for economic development,” says Carlberg. A successful tool for economic development is giving industry and students access to each other. Studies have shown that students with ties to the community are more likely to remain in the Charlotte region; engineers who are trained locally will seek employment locally.

     “We’re open to both small and large companies but know that most economic growth comes with start-ups or expansions in the region,” he continues. “However, large companies have the capacity to transfer the new knowledge in large quantities by hiring our students.”

     Wilhelm explains that small companies want to be close to ongoing research and development projects of faculty and students: “They want to be close to analytic or prototype or fabrication facilities; we want them to work with our students and faculties.”

     Space is set aside for industrial offices in the new EPIC building. The Charlotte Research Institute is the portal for industry to work with the university. In all, 100 acres on campus are state authorized to have business tenants.

     A thoughtful search for a director of the EPIC is in full swing, according to Johnson. “We’re looking for a very unique person,” he says, “one with industry connections but who understands academia; one with technical expertise but who has good people skills.”

     Although currently in the strategic planning cycle for the 2010-2015 University Plan, Johnson is waiting for the new director to include the EPIC. There is no shortage of interest in the job.

     In February 2010, Turner Construction Company was awarded the $61.5 million dollar contract to build the EPIC facility. The building will provide laboratory, classroom and office space.

     The departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering will relocate to the new building with close to 1,000 students. “One good benefit is that it will bring colleagues back together again,” says Patterson.

     The EPIC building is scheduled to open in late 2011. In the meantime, if you are near the UNC Charlotte campus, don’t take your eyes off the rising EPIC…you might miss a surge in the Charlotte area economy.

Zenda Douglas is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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