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Building the green supply chain in the Asheville area



10/31/2011 - Building the green supply chain in the Asheville area
by Dale Neal - Asheville Citizen Times

Green building and industry here in the mountains of Western North Carolina is growing!


 Deltec Homes was in the green building business long before sustainability was cool.

 Founded in 1968, Deltec manufactures distinctive round homes at its Bingham Road plant. The homes are sturdy enough to withstand hurricane-force winds. 

When Deltec President David Hall wanted his factory to become more energy-independent, he turned to Dave Hollister of Sundance Power Systems to install an array of electricity-producing solar panels on Deltec's roof. Now instead of bills from Progress Energy, Hall's company collects a monthly check from the utility.

"Business leaders have to balance the bottom line with stewardship," Hall said.

Hollister, in turn, has brought his business closer to home, buying tanks for his solar water-heating systems from a company in Raleigh, rather than in Jacksonville, Fla. "As energy becomes more expensive, we're going to have look toward more regional economies," Hollister said.

Both businessmen point to the partnership between Sundance and Deltec, demonstrating how Western North Carolina can build a green supply chain, linking a growing number of clean-energy companies across the mountains.

WNC's green advantage

From solar power installers and green builders to biofuel and methane gas captured from landfills for electricity, Western North Carolina boasts more clean energy companies per capita and more installed renewable energy than the rest of the state.

Each county in Western North Carolina boasts at least one clean-energy company in a growing industry cluster. Now business leaders and economic developers are trying to connect the dots that cluster our map into a job-creating industry to benefit the entire region.

Hollister and Hall were among the industry leaders who welcomed the EvolveEnergy Partnership, a new initiative launched last week by AdvantageWest, the regional economic development group. Also joining the partnership are Land of Sky Regional Council and several other government councils across 31 counties -- stretching from the mountains to Forsyth County.

EvolveEnergy Partnership will allow economic developers, policymakers, investors and business leaders to promote the region and attract more companies and jobs, organizers said.

"We know that growth in WNC's clean energy industry -- renewable energy, energy efficiency, and alternative fuels/vehicle technologies -- is outpacing both state and national averages," said Patrick Harper with Land of Sky.

From 2005- 09, even through the worst of the Great Recession, jobs in the region's clean-energy businesses grew 6.9 percent, while all other local industries saw a 7.9 percent decline in jobs.

"We also know that this growth is being led by small to midsize businesses," Harper said. "Behind the cluster analysis results and t he continued regional dialogue fostered by the EvolveEnergy Partnership, we're beginning to understand why."

In a presentation at the Diana Wortham Theatre, Austin consultant Angelos Angelou offered his analysis of the growing clean-energy clusters in the region and the potential to become a world leader.

Angelou dismissed the political argument that solar and renewable energies are propped up only by tax subsidies, pointing to the $38 billion spent in subsidies for U.S. oil companies. "We don't spend that kind of money on renewables. We're only asking for the chance to compete on a level playing field," he said.

Countries like Germany and China have made the political decisions to invest in clean energy, Angelou said.

"I don't understand our hesitation in investing in renewable energy for the future. If we invest now, we can create the jobs of the future and drive down the costs. There is good reason to believe that solar energy is here to stay, creating opportunities for entrepreneurs."

Angelou urged entrepreneurs, which Asheville has a rich supply of, to see where they could fill missing links in a green supply chain, for example, fabricating water heater tanks for solar companies.

Paul Quinlan of the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association sees an advantage that the mountains have over other regions of the state. "Many areas are trying to brand themselves as green, but here you have the leadership, the companies and the diversity."

Hall sees the EvolveEnergy Partnership and the energy cluster analysis as good first steps on the road to a sustainable market for green companies in Western North Carolina.

"As a businessman, you have to make sure you have a market, that you can supply a quality product at a fair price. This supply chain has to be developed from soup to nuts, from concept and design all the way to sales, delivery and installation to a market that wants what you have."

Hollister agreed that EvolveEnergy Partnership initiative is a start. "We have the building blocks for creating a center for renewable energy in the region. The fact that people are putting their energy into that effort is fundamentally important. From my perspective, it's taken a long time."

Homegrown energy

In a previous life, Hollister and Hall might have considered themselves political enemies. Hollister once served as an activist organizer for Greenpeace, which targeted International Paper, where Hall worked as an executive.

Now, the two men enjoy each other's company. Both have found common ground that running a green business is more about sticking to values than the bottom line.

Hall has made the hard decision to use only American suppliers. He's found the last nail maker manufacturing in the U.S. He's nearly made it work, except for the spruce lumber that Deltec has to import from Canada.

"You could have gone out and bought the cheapest nail, the cheapest wood," Hollister said in praise of Hall. "But you've got values you're placing on your company which is to say 'I want to buy from my country. I want to buy as locally as possible.'

"We are never going to get where we want to go until people guide their companies by a set of values that go beyond the bottom line," Hollister said.

Likewise, Sundance is trying to bring business back home, and Hollister sees opportunity for more manufacturing in the region. "We have the empty factories all sitting around us."

Hall sees solar power as officially part of the mainstream when a homeowner can see that electricity from solar panels has the same cost as electricity generated from fossil fuels. "That will create a sustainable market."

In the meantime, Deltec is also working with Sundance to provide solar power and solar hot water for the home designs manufactured in the Asheville factory.

For Hollister, solar power in particular offers the regional economy a chance to generate more of its own electricity, instead of importing the coal, oil and other fuels that puts North Carolina at an estimated $3 billion energy deficit each year.

"You couldn't be doing business with China unless energy was dirt cheap. Before the advent of really cheap energy, all economies were local. As energy becomes more constricted and more expensive, naturally we're going to look more regionally for the things we need. The pendulum will swing back," Hollister said.

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