Sometimes a big win hangs on tiny details.
When Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies in March 2021 announced its $2 billion, 725-job biopharma facility would be built in Holly Springs, North Carolina, talent drove the bus. But busbars in substations mattered too.
“The site graded out very well across the board, but presented some difficult electric service challenges by requiring a high-end service delivery to the site,” says John Nelms, senior economic development manager for Duke North Carolina. “The challenge was finding a line route that could meet the customer’s timeline and also have minimal community and environmental impacts. Duke Energy’s Transmission Department was able to find a suitable route that could meet these requirements, and thus was a critical factor in the Holly Springs being the selected site for Fujifilm Corporation.”
Puzzling out challenges like that is at the core of the technical services team just created within Duke Energy’s economic development department.The idea is to bring together best practices from all Duke territories in engineering, operations, regulatory affairs and economic development to serve customer needs, says John Geib, who heads the new team.
“When a project comes to look at a site, the first visit is, ‘Do you have enough electricity, and how much is it?’” says Geib. “We say, ‘Yes, and here’s our price.’ Then they come back with an energy expert: What’s the power quality, reliability? That requires we ask some questions about what they’re doing, what equipment is sensitive, what aberrations most alarm them. What are solutions behind the meter? Typically that takes years of training at the power company to get somebody who can comfortably ask those questions and parry the responses. Those are the kinds of guys and gals I’m putting on my team.”
The Renewables Conundrum … er, Opportunity
Geib offers renewables as an example of an area where technical services can bring substantial insight to the table:
“We’re all being inundated with renewables inquiries,” he says. “Some of them are huge. They are important brand names with folks who have a genuine mission to go carbon-neutral. But no one power company has yet come up with a way to skin that cat and deliver the components these folks are looking for, much less do it at the price they’re looking for. Within the regulatory constraints of each state, how do we develop a package of renewables services that will meet the needs of every client? Getting there will be a lot of fun.”
Sometimes, renewable energy project development butts heads with economic development when what seems to be a prime site for a solar farm might be better reserved for an industrial employer. Technical services can help communities dance along that line between different types of opportunity.
The EV sector is another area where technical services will be brought to bear, as established automotive industry players determine how to approach location decisions and new supply chains. His team’s internal work with Duke Energy corporate on potential sites for truck charging stations is a case in point, as their usual focus is on high-load-factor projects, while truck charging stations are the opposite, but part of a long-term vision for a region.
“We were able to find some common ground,” he says. It’s not traditionally under the umbrella of economic development, but “it is an interesting corporate strategy to become part of a coordinated effort to integrate an entire region of the country with the charging infrastructure required to make EVs work and gain broad acceptance.”
Other areas ripe for technical services input are data centers and offshore wind power, especially in the Carolinas, where “we believe there is a big supply chain opportunity on the coast,” Geib says, even as the operations side of Duke has to puzzle out transmission solutions.
All in all, Geib says with tongue firmly in cheek, “it’s a fun time to work for a boring, stodgy old power company.”
‘Deals Take Time’
Based in Orlando, John Fremstad is director of innovation and competitiveness for Duke’s economic develoment team in Florida. Asked what this atypical year has been like for someone used to the road warrior lifestyle, he says, “When you’re used to 125-plus days a year on the road, going to zero can be quite a shock to the system. Thankfully technology allowed us to keep in touch with our clients, partners and advisors. Communication with existing relationships was higher than normal, and we actually closed more deals than in 2019. But remember: Deals take time, so the groundwork was done in 2017 and 2018.”
He says data centers and cryptocurrency mining can’t build fast enough. Data centers continue to build in all geographies across Duke’s footprint. “Since the June decision by the Chinese to slow mining there’s been a mad rush to gobble up U.S. power capacity,” he says. “Of course price is a huge factor, especially with energy being 80% or more of the cost of mining. So the lower the rate, the more interest in a particular part of our footprint. As they say, good problems to have.”
“I’m writing a primer on cryptocurrency for Duke to understand the nature of the ask, and how we respond,” says John Geib. “I’ve never seen anything like it. We have two to five gigawatts of mining capacity being forced out of China and they want 3.5-cent energy.
Nobody has that.”
While some uncertainty hovers over the sector’s risk profile, Geib points out, “We are doing a business with some crypto miners from the last wave in 2018, and it has worked out well.
Now we have this new wave. They want to be in business in three months. That’s something else technical services will work on, trying to rationalize speed of delivery.”
Does the geographic diversity of Duke Energy territories help cultivate interest from a corporate end user in multiple projects rather than just one?
“We a can offer great solutions from Indiana to Florida with companies that provide product directly to consumers,” Fremstad says. “For example, a few companies need distribution centers, cold-storage buildings, air hubs, EV truck charging stations and vehicles, data storage, etc. We are very well positioned up and down the East Coast to provide multiple, and sustainable, solutions for the end user/client.”
On sustainability in particular, he notes, “I work almost exclusively with projects ‘demanding’ a 100% green solution for their new builds. We work directly with the end users’ energy managers to craft solutions that meet Duke’s and their sustainability goals.
The growth of wind, solar and other carbon-neutral solutions will continue like a rocket ship.”
If Duke’s service mindset is any indication, so too will economic growth in Duke territory.