Charlotte, North Carolina, isn’t the first place you would think of, when asked for the most sustainable city in the US. Best known, perhaps, as the nerve-center of octane-fueled motor-sports (thanks to NASCAR being headquartered here) Charlotte is home to the second-largest financial district outside of Wall Street. It is also one of the least walkable of America’s 50 biggest cities, according to a recent survey of ‘walkability’.

But Charlotte is changing. As one the fastest-growing cities in the US, its increasingly young and tech-savvy residents are keen to grasp at future potential. And in the last decade, the Queen City has seen the future potential for ‘clean energy’ writ large indeed. Branding itself as the ‘The New Energy Capital’, there is a real buzz of sustainability about town these days. Many Charlotteans see their city as an incubator for the urban future of America – a practical example of how any city can become a sustainable community.
The vision thing
That vision has seen a host of initiatives looking to turn good-intentions into real-world results. Foremost among these is Envision Charlotte, an project to transform the uptown financial district into a low-energy, smart-grid-enabled hub. ′This is an unprecedented plan to align business interests with smart grid technology in a way that can propel Charlotte to the forefront of energy efficiency in commercial and government buildings,′ said Michael Regan of the local Environmental Defense Fund.
It’s not just Charlotte’s home-towners with the green vision. President Obama chose Charlotte recently to make his major speech on the clean economy, announcing a $1b stimulus package to get alternative energy transport moving faster. “We can’t just keep on relying on the old ways of doing business. We can’t just rely on fossil fuels from the last century. We’ve got to continually develop new sources of energy,” he said.
Charlotte sweet for sun and wind
And it is just such new sources of energy that form the foundation North Carolina’s transformation. The south-east state is that rare thing on the eastern sea-board– a real sweet spot for both solar and wind power. The solar resource won’t be a surprise, to those familiar with Charlotte’s long hot summers; but the wind potential is something else.
The broad shallows fringing the Atlantic coast, to the east, are ideal for offshore wind development – with enough wind to power the whole state. Even better, the wind is strongest in the summer and afternoons, making it the perfect renewable to tap, to keep the state cool in those sweltering months. Plans were revealed at the recent Southeastern Coastal Wind Conference – held in Charlotte – to open three coastal areas to bids from offshore wind developers.
“We are talking about something really gigantic, right next door, that’s not been tapped into at all,” Ned Farquhar, from the state’s Interior Department, told the Charlotte Observerrecently. To match that gigantic potential, one the titans of Charlotte’s energy scene – Duke Energy – plans to get its wind turbines wet. It is taking part in a study of what effect offshore wind power will have on the state. Duke Energy are a recurring partner for Charlotte’s burgeoning sustainability efforts, being involved in Envision Charlotte, and several other initiatives, recently.
‘Research Triangle Region’ spearheading sustainability
Away from the windy Carolina coastline, the intellectual powerhouse of Charlotte’s drive to 21stcentury sustainability lies in smart-energy tech companies of the ‘Research Triangle Region’. Charlotte already has a deep expertise locally in the energy sector – with 240-plus energy-slanted firms calling Charlotte home. Traditionally these firms have focused on big engineering – nuclear, coal and grid infrastructure.
But the Research Triangle Region, spearheaded by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC), has different energy ace up is sleeve – the ‘smart grid’. This new way of distributing electricity, with intelligence built-in to the grid, is going to be vital the sustainable transition. The count of ‘smart grid’ companies in the Triangle has surpassed 60, according to a report from Duke University, and is already employing at least 3,000 people.
Death of dumb power
The need to add some ‘sass’ to the electrical grid is being driven by two factors. On the one hand, sustainable power means a a heavy reliance on renewables – but also an increased variability in power. On the other, the division between energy producer and consumer is blurring – households can now produce excess power from their solar panels, for example. The electrification of personal transport – with the rise of the EV – is also expected to rework electricity demand.
These all add to the urgency for the binning of the current centralized, one-way distribution of power. That’s where the Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management (FREEDM) System Center comes in. A $18 million project from North Carolina State University, it is hoping to make the smart grid real, using a combination of fast EV charging infrastructure, new storage technology, and digital grid management systems.
EVs shaping the evolving ‘smart grid’
The need for ramping-up the EV charging infrastructure has been recognized, too, by Power2Charlotte, a program set-up by the City of Charlotte to promote spending under the DoE’s  Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Fund. $275,000 has already gone towards an EV  pilot, setting up 28 charging stations around the city, and kitting the City’s fleet with another 8 EVs.
In fact EVs lie at the heart of efforts to make dispersed urban centers, such as Charlotte, sustainable. Firstly, they remove the load of local pollutants from the tailpipe, cutting problems, such as particulate pollution and ozone smogs, in one fell swoop. Secondly they provide a spur to the greening of the back-end power generation. Those choosing EVs will want to see their electricity supply with as low a carbon-footprint as possible – which can be fed by developing solar and wind resources.
Electric cars can also become an integral part of the smart grid, where plugged-in EVs may act as energy storage buffers, to the benefit of utility companies and EV owners alike. All told, Charlotte may be one of those cities where the pieces of the sustainability puzzle are finally coming together. And if Charlotte can make the transition, the rest of urban America can’t be far behind.
Martin is a freelance writer from the UK, who specializes in writing on the strategic impact of environmental issues. After a 10-year sojourn as an analyst at Brady plc –  a Cambridge-based provider of services to commodity investment banking professionals – Martin set himself up as self-employed writer at the beginning of 2010. Since then he has written for a number of environmental websites and companies, and has been one of the principle journalists for green news website, The Earth Times