President Obama Announces New Energy Efficiency Manufacturing Hub in North Carolina Visit

President Obama dropped into our state (North Carolina) on a clean-energy visit Wednesday to tour a private company’s research into energy efficiency and to unveil a new private-public energy consortium at North Carolina State University.

The president’s visit also serves as a nod toward the Tar Heel State’s nation-leading efforts to create clean-energy jobs and the strong pushback in the past year against efforts to ease regulation that promotes clean energy. 

In Raleigh, Obama spent an hour in the offices of the power manufacturing company Vacon, a Finnish company that opened a research-and-development facility in 2012 in the Research Triangle Park. Vacon manufactures AC drives, which control the speed of electric motors to maximize energy efficiency.

Accompanied by Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and Vacon Vice President Dan Isaksson, the president stopped at a display of computer screens and devices and got an overview of the technology from Vacon engineer Rod Washington. Obama said Vacon’s work was leading to a “huge increase of efficiencies of power” that saves money. At a second stop in the plant, Obama praised the company’s “good work” and efforts to link up with local universities.

An hour later, Obama was back in the heart of Raleigh at North Carolina State, where he announced that the university’s Centennial Campus will be home to a consortium of companies and universities that aims to develop the next generation of energy-efficient electronic chips and devices.

Participating in the consortium are seven universities and 18 companies, including companies such as Cree and ABB that have a large presence in the Raleigh-Durham area. The consortium, called the Next Generation Power Electronics Institute, will over the next five years receive $70 million from the U.S. Energy Department and $10 million from the state. The consortium partners will march the federal money with an additional $70 million.

The North Carolina consortium is the first of three manufacturing centers that Obama proposed in his State of the Union address last year. The N.C. bid was selected in a competition launched last May. The two other institutes are still in the selection process, and the White House said Wednesday they should be announced soon.

North Carolina’s advances in clean-energy technologies are the envy of many states. Research from RTI International has found that clean-energy businesses have created more than 21,000 jobs and brought in $1.7 billion into North Carolina’s economy.

And our business affiliate Environmental Entrepreneurs has found that North Carolina is No. 5 for solar development and No. 2 in clean energy and clean transportation jobs announcements.

Even amid such demonstrated results, resistance to clean-energy policy remains. Opponents took a hard run at repealing North Carolina’s Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standard. This rule requires investor-owned utilities to produce 12.5 percent of their electricity by 2021 using renewable resources and energy efficiency.

Ultimately, the repeal effort failed – largely because of the tide of clean-energy jobs that have come into North Carolina precisely because of the standard. Republican Rep. Tim Moore of Cleveland County told The News & Observer of Raleigh that his vote “was based off local issues back home. I would have had a difficult time talking to a CEO who just brought 300 jobs to Cleveland County (and telling him) that I’m going to vote to eliminate this program that justified their investment.”

Additional movement towards a clean energy economy happened this November when the state’s utilities commission approved a “shared savings” program that will compensate Duke Energy for its investments in energy efficiency programs if they save money for customers. With “shared savings,” Duke Energy customers will keep close to 90 percent of efficiency savings, and Duke earns the rest.

Wednesday’s presidential visit and announcement only pushes North Carolina further ahead in clean energy. But it doesn’t take a visit by a chief executive to get Tar Heels thinking about energy efficiency – they already know it’s the future.