Editor’s note: Susan Sanford is the executive director of the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster, which is co-founded the North Carolina Cleantech Corridor, dedicated to growing the Triangle’s cleantech economy and driving adoption of clean technologies across the globe.
RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – The Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster (RTCC) recently convened North Carolina thought leaders in a webinar to discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting the global energy and cleantech sector – an industry with a significant footprint in our state. Almost 150 participants from across the country tuned in to hear the panelists discuss global trends resulting from the pandemic, which have both alarming implications and unique opportunities for North Carolina.
The COVID-19 pandemic will have a significant impact on North Carolina, as the state is home to one of the world’s fastest-growing cleantech hubs. Cleantech – a broad term for any technology that reduces environmental or climate impact – includes renewable energy generation, energy storage, efficient transportation, ‘smart’ water management, advanced manufacturing, and more. Cleantech is ‘the biggest industry you’ve never heard of,’ employing more than 27,000 people in 1,900 organizations in the Research Triangle region alone, from one-person startups and small nonprofits to multinational companies and global research institutes. This workforce generates electricity , purifies the water supply, keeps homes energy-efficient, enables cars to use less gas, and streamlines manufacturing processes.
In a time of global crisis, when everyday lives have fundamentally changed, how is this critical industry affected?
Last week’s webinar highlighted many of the global trends impacting cleantech, including both challenges and opportunities.
CLEANTECH SECTOR FACES DECLINING DEMAND AND ECONOMIC UNCERTAINTY
The webinar revealed a consensus that the cleantech sector is facing significant challenges as a result of the pandemic. Like many other global industries, cleantech faces declining consumer demand; concerns about worker safety, health, and retention; and uncertain financial futures.
One challenge distinct to the cleantech sector is the extreme and sudden shift in energy consumption, as explained by Paul Quinlan, cleantech manager at energy consulting firm ScottMadden. Industry has virtually ground to a halt, cars sit idle in driveways, and remote work schedules have skyrocketed energy use in our homes. Even with increased residential energy consumption, overall energy demand has decreased dramatically – meaning financial losses to utilities, both privately and publicly held.
Gary Rackliffe, vice president of Smart Grids at ABB, noted that even in a time of fiscal losses, those utilities must continue to offer continuous service, ensure the health and safety of grid workers, protect against an increased risk of cyberattacks, and meet regulatory deadlines – and that most are succeeding.
Renee Peet, vice president of marketing and communications for Measurement and Control Solutions Growth Center at Xylem, pointed out that while local and state governments are leading the response to COVID-19, those that own and operate electric utilities are facing decreased revenue and workforce challenges just like private industry.
Vik Rao, executive director at the Research Triangle Energy Consortium, predicted a global industry slowdown as a result of drastically reduced demand for traditional fuels, manufacturing slowdowns, and transportation restrictions. His predictions were echoed by Ivan Urlaub, chief of strategy and innovation at the North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, who explained that the renewable energy sector is also facing decreasing sales and increasing soft costs associated with zoning, permitting, and construction.
NECESSARY FOR A SAFE, CLEAN, AND SUSTAINABLE RECOVERY
The cleantech sector may be stalled during the worst of the pandemic, but its role both now and in recovery must be acknowledged. Cleantech innovations, especially those from North Carolina, are the some of the most important technologies keeping us safe and connected.
- Digital connectivity platforms, like Cisco’s Webex, have enabled remote work and social distancing worldwide
- ‘Digital twins’ developed to model energy assets, like those of Power Analytics, are being used to map COVID-19 cases, medical equipment, and critical infrastructure facing increased stress
- ‘Smart’ utility meters, like Sensus’s water meters, allow workers to safely collect data safely from a distance
- Building efficiency technologies, like Honeywell’s smart thermostat, help reduce energy use while we’re spending more time at home
- Distributed energy resources, like those developed by PowerSecure, help critical infrastructure (including hospitals and telecommunication facilities) stay online during grid failures
- IoT-enabled sensors combined with AI offers advanced management of public health
- Advanced manufacturing processes have enabled the rapid and efficient transition to producing personal protective equipment (PPE) and other critical supplies
Over the past few years, these homegrown cleantech technologies have been growing quickly, generating profits, creating high-value jobs, and developing solutions for the toughest environmental and climate challenges – but its future is uncertain. Federal stimulus packages have not explicitly targeted the cleantech industry, although it could be supported through a number of measures.
Just as the stimulus packages of 2008-09 provided billions of dollars for grid modernization, supporting ‘shovel ready’ cleantech jobs to help the economy recover, future COVID-19 recovery packages could be designed to support the industry and a ‘greener’ economy.
“Including infrastructure investment as part of a package could address grid modernization that would improve grid reliability, resiliency, efficiency, and could also accelerate deployment and integration of renewable, carbon-free generation,” said panelist Gary Rackliffe.
“In many ways, cleantech paves a path for a sustainable, promising recovery from this crisis. It’s an industry worth protecting,” said Susan Sanford, executive director of the Research Triangle Cleantech Cluster. “And RTCC will continue to advocate for our members, partners, and region to make sure we recover together.”