TAEBC guest column: Transportation electrification can recharge Tennessee’s economy

(Originally published in the Knoxville News Sentinel

By Cortney Piper, Executive Director of TAEBC

Tennessee unemployment lingers close to 10% as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to chew through livelihoods across the state. Likewise, millions of Americans are unemployed. The state has an opportunity in this economic downturn, however, to add jobs and make the state a leader in the advanced energy economy for transportation.

The energy sector, specifically transportation electrification, is the solution that Tennesseans should pursue. It would have statewide impact, and with the potential backing of federal funding, has the potential to launch the state into a new phase of manufacturing and job creation.

Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council supports stimulus proposal

The Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council recently signed on to the Transportation Electrification Partnership’s $150 billion federal stimulus proposal. The coalition of 50 cleantech organizations from 15 states recently sent a letter to Congress, requesting multi-billion-dollar federal investment in transportation electrification. That investment would create 2.3 million high-quality, advanced energy jobs across the country. The proposal’s recommended actions include:

  • $25 billion investment in building and adopting electric and zero-emissions vehicles along with supply-chain development (producing domestic lithium for batteries, etc.);
  •  $85 billion for electric vehicle charging and related infrastructure;
  • $25 billion for zero-emissions public transit, active transit and safe streets;
  • $12.5 billion for workforce development, safety standards and job training; and
  •   $2.5 billion in innovation ecosystems for cleantech startups and related small businesses, prioritizing those created by underrepresented founders.

This electrification proposal isn’t just about putting electric vehicles on the street. It’s about creating manufacturing jobs, as $25 billion would boost the electric vehicle supply chain. Facilities such as Denso in Maryville have become regional leaders in employment because of their role in the automotive supply chain.

A boost for community and technical colleges

Of the $150 billion in the proposal, $12.5 billion is dedicated to workforce development and job training. Think of the expansion that could provide for community and technical colleges across the state as we build a workforce of smart people with the technical know-how to remain competitive for new potential employers. Another $2.5 billion would go toward fostering an advanced-energy entrepreneurial ecosystem. That’s money directly going to small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Transportation electrification falls under the advanced energy sector – anything making energy cleaner, safer, more secure or more efficient. At our core, TAEBC champions advanced energy as a job creation and economic development strategy. In our 2018 Tennessee Advanced Energy Economic Impact Report, we found that advanced energy contributes $39.7 billion to state gross domestic product and employs nearly 360,000 Tennesseans.

It’s simple: The advanced energy sector creates high-quality jobs, fuels growth for existing businesses and attracts new corporate investment in the state. It’s already happening. Volkswagen is opening a new $800 million electric vehicle production site. Facebook has a new $800 million data center near Nashville that will be powered by two new solar energy projects. Advanced energy will continue to recharge our economy and accelerate growth during this challenging time.

Tennessee is uniquely positioned to capitalize on transportation electrification thanks to the hard work of U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and previous governors Phil Bredesen and Bill Haslam, who diligently put our current advanced energy infrastructure and assets in place. Just last year, Bob Rolfe, Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner, reinforced our state’s goal of becoming the top electric vehicle producer in the country.

The state is ready to lead the country in transportation electrification. In fact, work in electrification is a key part of Tennessee’s history in America. In 1933, the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority brought jobs and helped Tennesseans pull through the worst of the Great Depression. Today, the transportation electrification efforts outlined in this proposal could and should be used as job creation and economic development opportunities to help us rise out of our current crisis.

TAEBC founding board member, Dan Hurst of Strata-G, sells company to employees

Dan Hurst, CEO and Founder of Knoxville-based Strata-G, has sold his company to two of his longtime vice presidents. Elliott Barnett will assume the position of CEO, and John Patterson will serve as president. Strata-G is a valued member of the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council, while Hurst is a founding board member.

“These guys that have been with us 15 years are natural leaders, they know our business, they’ve built and are committed to our culture,” Hurst told the Knoxville News Sentinel. “We just had to figure out the right financial mechanism and details of business to make it work, and we did. I think we’ve done it in a way that we’re proud of each other for and thankful a lot for.”

Hurst founded the small business with senior engineer Darrell Daugherty in 2002. The engineering firm now has 250 employees and is ranked as the largest veteran-owned business in East Tennessee by the Knoxville News Sentinel‘s Book of Lists. Last year, Strata-G was named the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Dream Big Small Business of the Year

This sale has been a couple years in the making and will allow Hurst to focus most of his time on long-term strategy and outreach, while Daugherty will still serve as lead engineer until a new successor is appointed. 

“Succession is a fun word,” Hurst said. “We’re all succeeding together, and we’re doing it by them not kicking us over the hill; that’s in our benefit and theirs. The fact that we’ve got a path that lets all that ‘juice’ stay in the company, I think, is useful.”

TAEBC awarded Hurst the annual Thomas B. Ballard Advanced Energy Leadership Award during the Annual Meeting on March 5, 2020, at Schneider Electric’s Nashville Hub. The Thomas B. Ballard Advanced Energy Leadership Award honors exemplary leadership and success in championing, connecting, and strengthening Tennessee’s advanced energy economy.

“As a founding board member of TAEBC, Dan Hurst embodies the qualities of a servant leader,” said Cortney Piper, Executive Director of TAEBC. “His dedication and commitment to building a new organization that represents an entire industry that makes Tennessee a better state in which to live, work and play is truly admirable. That same vision and devotion have enabled Dan to lead and grow a successful business in East Tennessee that embraces energy innovation, environmental stewardship and sustainability.”

To learn more about Strata-G and its commitment to pursuing advanced energy projects that improve Tennessee’s communities, contribute to the state’s advanced energy economy, and ensure the wellbeing of Tennesseans, click here.

Clearloop partners with first business, aims to help businesses reduce carbon footprints

Nashville-based Clearloop recently partnered with its first business, Boston-based Impact Snacks, a healthy snack company that “reclaims more carbon than it makes, produces no plastic and harnesses the power of collective action leaving nothing behind except for a better, cleaner world.”

Founded by former Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, Laura Zapata, and Bob Corney in 2019, Clearloop aims to “accelerate the greening of the U.S. electricity grid in the next 10 years through the force of everyday actions.” The startup helps companies “measure, reclaim and track” their carbon footprint with new renewable energy facilities. 

“We’re trying to partner with different businesses in a way similar to crowdfunding to build these facilities that would produce enough energy to power 200 homes in the Jackson area,” said Zapata. Zapata and Corney worked on Bredesen’s staff when he was governor. 

With this new partnership, Clearloop will build its first megawatt-producing solar facility near Silicon Ranch Corporation’s 2-megawatt solar farm in Jackson, Tennessee. Bredesen serves as the Founding Chairman of the Board for Silicon Ranch Corporation, a valued Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council member. 

Clearloop’s mission is to help businesses of all sizes partner to build renewable energy facilities to generate clean energy and decrease or completely eliminate their carbon footprint. 

“I see it as a way of really reaching into a different world of companies that are not the big dogs, who have got some C-suite executive worrying about sustainability, like Walmart does or Procter & Gamble does,” Bredesen told The Associated Press

Zapata said the company intends to announce more partnerships later this year.

LaunchTN’s 36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival panel sessions with TAEBC Executive Director, Innovation Crossroads Cohort Three, highlight value of Energy Mentor Network

LaunchTN’s 36|86 Entrepreneurship Festival celebrates visionaries and innovators who are actively shaping their entrepreneurial ecosystems through their expertise, research and forward-thinking ideas. 

During the 10-day, virtual festival, Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council Executive Director, Cortney Piper, spoke in a panel session about innovation partnerships, while the Innovation Crossroads Cohort Three startups held a live Q&A session with alumni Megan O’Connor of Nth Cycle. O’Connor and the Cohort Three startups are enrolled in TAEBC’s Energy Mentor Network program.  

The “Startup, Inc.: Advancing Strategy with Innovation Partnerships” panel session featured Piper; Reed Hayes, AVP of Digital Strategy & Innovation at Unum; and Anthony Oni, Co-founder and CEO of Cloverly, and Vice President Corporate Communications at Southern Company Gas. The panel was moderated by Daley Ervin, the Managing Director of Engage. 

Participants discussed how investing in innovation partnerships can be lucrative for small or large businesses, and can help rapidly increase scale for emerging companies or advance existing strategies for market incumbents. They explained how and why companies and organizations invest in establishing these partnerships, along with how other businesses can benefit from doing the same.

Piper spoke about the mission of TAEBC to champion advanced energy as an “economic development and job creation strategy,” along with the Energy Mentor Network, which is run by TAEBC in partnership with LaunchTN. One of the main goals of the Energy Mentor Network, said Piper, is to “foster the growth of advanced energy companies and technologies in the state of Tennessee.” 

In the final segment of the panel, Piper explained that the Energy Mentor Network helps startups learn how to “concisely and compellingly” tell their story, understand that “just because a company can partner with you, doesn’t mean they will,” and to be persistent when reaching out to potential partners or sources of funding.

Meanwhile, the “Live AMA with ORNL’s Innovation Crossroads” showcased O’Connor sitting down with seven members of Cohort Three to discuss what is next on the frontiers of cleantech and energy. Cohort Three includes Williams Fitzhugh of American Nanotechnologies Inc., Hicham Ghossein of Endeavor Composites Inc., Jesse Claypoole of MantaPoole Technologies, Leila Safavi of Purist Inc., Trevor McQueen of Neptune Fluid Flow Systems, Alex Lewis of Electro-Active Technologies Inc., and Jesse Thornburg of Grid Fruit

During the session, Cohort Three startups answered questions ranging from what advice they would give to burgeoning entrepreneurs to how the Tennessee ecosystem has helped their companies over the past year.

“This area has so much to offer. It’s so accessible,” explained McQueen. “It has helped every facet of our business grow. We couldn’t be happier.” 

Safavi remarked that the best piece of advice she would give to new entrepreneurs or researchers is to have a “great support group.”

“Without them pushing me forward at times when I had doubt, without their support, it wouldn’t be possible,” she continued. “Having a good group of supporters that can advise you and help you move forward is key.”

O’Connor echoed Safavi’s advice about the importance of support systems, saying, “I think that’s one of the great benefits of Innovation Crossroads, having that really early stage support behind you.”

To learn more about the Energy Mentor Network program or become a mentor, click here.

Volkswagen to construct a high-voltage laboratory to test electric vehicle batteries in Chattanooga

Volkswagen plans to break ground soon on a state-of-the-art, high-voltage laboratory at its Chattanooga Assembly plant. The lab, an extension of the plant’s Engineering and Planning Center, will be used to develop and test electric vehicle cells and battery packs for upcoming models assembled in the United States. It is expected to be fully operational by spring 2021.

“There are two ways that auto companies approach the development of electric vehicle batteries,” said Wolfgang Maluche, vice president of engineering at Volkswagen of America. “A lot of them will farm out the development and testing of batteries to another company, and some will actually do the work of developing and testing in-house. We are doing the latter.”

Among the lab’s notable features will be a custom multi-axis shaker table (MAST), which is designed to test the integrity of vehicle components under a variety of harsh conditions and climates. The Chattanooga lab’s MAST will be built to withstand the immense force and frequency that is needed to test electric vehicle batteries, which typically weigh hundreds of pounds and run the width of the vehicle. The lab will be only the second location in the country with a MAST of its size.

Another notable lab feature will be its focus on sustainability. Chiefly, the lab will be built to meet Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design standards for environmental impacts, including a battery-to-grid connection that sends unused energy back to utilities. This design decision is in line with Volkswagen’s goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

The high-voltage lab is the latest initiative undertaken by Volkswagen that helps reinforces Tennessee’s goal of becoming the top electric vehicle producer in America, as stated by Bob Rolfe, Tennessee Economic and Community Development Commissioner.

Construction is still underway on an $800 million expansion of the Chattanooga plant that, when complete, will produce two battery-powered cars, including the all-electric ID.4 SUV.