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Shaw Power Exec: Charlotte needs Energy Entrepreneurs

photo by JEN WILSON

One of the Charlotte energy hub’s biggest boosters says the missing pieces in the effort are the entrepreneurial energy and technology companies that attract venture investment and establish new businesses here.

Jeff Merrifield, senior vice president of the Shaw Power Group, spoke Thursday night to about 60 people gathered at the Young Professionals in Energy mixer at the Dilworth Neighborhood Grille.

In a wide-ranging presentation, he discussed the hub initiative, UNC Charlotte’s Energy Production and Infrastructure Center and the prospects for nuclear plant construction in the United States.

Big players

The Power Group’s move to Charlotte in 2007 was one of the early signs that the growing energy industry in Charlotte could be a key economic-development driver for the region.

The group now has 1,200 energy employees here, second only to Duke Energy locally as an employer in the energy industry. Siemens is poised to pass Shaw, however, in the next couple years as it builds its presence of more than 800 workers to 1,800 with the addition of a gas turbine manufacturing plant here.

Announcements by big players such as Shaw, Siemens, Babcock & Wilcox, Areva, Westinghouse, Mitsubishi and Toshiba have often dominated the headlines since the hub initiative kicked off in 2009.

Where Charlotte has not done as well, Merrifield says, is in the new energy fields — particularly alternatives such as wind and solar and in high-tech smart-grid operations. Raleigh, with the Research Triangle’s tech resources, has been a bigger magnet for those kinds of companies. “We have more work yet to be done in that area,” he says.

Applied research

UNC Charlotte’s new energy center should prove an important draw for those kinds of companies, he said. Merrifield sees the center as having two goals — training the skilled work force the energy industry will need here and conducting applied research that leads to products and procedures that have immediate commercial applications.

“I don’t want to dis pure research,” he said. “But you look at what happened in Silicon Valley, with Stanford doing applied research, and how that took off there. We have to encourage EPIC and UNC Charlotte to move that way.”

Merrifield is on the EPIC board and spent part of Thursday morning at UNC Charlotte in a board meeting with its newly appointed director, Johan Enselin.

Plant approvals

Shaw is a major player in nuclear development as the engineering and construction partner to Westinghouse on the AP1000 nuclear reactor.

Merrifield told the group he thinks the still unresolved nuclear crisis involving the four Japanese reactors crippled by a March earthquake and tsunami will not significantly slow U.S. development of new plants.

He said he expects the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to give final approval to the AP1000 design before the end of the year. And he said he expects the NRC also to grant construction and operating licenses to Southern Co. for its 2,334-megawatt Vogtle plant expansion and to SCANA Corp. for its similarly sized V.C. Summer plant expansion by late this year to early next year.

“I think this will be a seminal year for nuclear energy in America,” Merrifield told the group. “At one end of it will have been the Fukushima plant disaster in Japan, and at the other end will be approval of the AP1000 and the start of the nuclear renaissance here in the U.S.”

Article by John Downey, Senior Staff Writer for Charlotte Bizjournals.

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