One of the ironies of Barack Obama’s presidency is that the South, the red island that rejected his election so vigorously in 2008, may wind up being the place that makes a cornerstone of his agenda work.  The South is becoming a major player in the shift to the Green energy economy that Obama advocates.  Georgia Tech researchers, for instance, have recorded significant advancements in both wind and solar technology.  Two Virginia  firms are among the first companies to apply for federal permits to set up offshore wind turbines.  North Georgia carpet mills are leading the way in recycling industrial waste for energy.

Georgia Tech, which had a substantial role in developing the Stealth bomber, is now applying aerodynamics to windmill blades. Working with PAX Streamline, a California company, Tech researchers are using a technology originally developed to increase lift in aircraft wings to help reduce the cost of manufacturing and operating wind turbines used for generating electricity.  The Georgia Tech Research Institute reports that the “circulation control” aerodynamic technology could allow the wind turbines to produce significantly more power than current devices at the same wind speed.

While Tech is working on the windmill blades, Clemson University in South Carolina is working on the drivetrain.   Its new a $98 million wind turbine test lab in North Charleston will focus on ways to make more durable and efficient drivetrains to make wind power more competitive with other forms of power generation.  U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu in December visited Clemson’s International Center for Automotive Research, which will operate the lab.

In Virginia, Apex Wind Energy Corp., based in Charlottesville, and Seawind Renewable Energy Corp., based near Richmond, submitted unsolicited proposals in August and September to federal regulators to lease space 12 to 25 miles off Virginia Beach for wind farms, according to the Virginian-Pilot.

There are political problems, of course.  When Virginia’s new Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell joined governors from Maine, Rhode Island, Delaware, Maryland and Massachusetts in a meeting with U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on wind energy, he instead focused on his interest in offshore drilling for oil.  McDonnell also recently signed legislation to begin offshore oil exploration.

On the solar front, Georgia Tech researchers recently received broad patent protection in China and Australia for a three-dimensional solar cell design that uses “micron-scale towers” to capture nearly three times as much light as flat solar cells.  Tech’s Research Institute reports that modeling suggests that the 3-D cell could boost power production by as much as 300 percent compared to conventional solar cells.

The Institute for Southern Studies reports that a groundbreaking study out of North Carolina suggests that backup generation requirements would be modest for a system based largely on solar and wind power, combined with efficiency, hydroelectric power, and other renewable sources like landfill gas. “Even though the wind does not blow nor the sun shine all the time, careful management, readily available storage and other renewable sources can produce nearly all the electricity North Carolinians consume,” said author John Blackburn, professor emeritus of economics and former chancellor at Duke University.

In Gordon County, Georgia, officials are working with Sentinx LLC, a renewable energy company based in Johns Creek, Georgia., to turn a 36-acre abandoned landfill into a large-scale, 5-megawatt solar farm.  Under TVA’s Green Power Switch Generation Partners program, the agency would pay 12 cents per kilowatt hour for the solar energy.   The county expects to save $8,000 to $10,000 off its $518,000 annual electricity bill, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Shaw Industries in Dalton, Georgia, now uses a combination of wood and carpet manufacturing scraps to power boilers for steam, and company officials say that is saving more than $1 million a year in natural gas costs. Mohawk Industries’  is turning  a quarter of the nation’s 215 million pounds of recycled plastic bottles into polyethylene terephthalate carpet fiber at its recycling plant in Summerville, Georgia.

Tennessee recently received federal grant money to develop 2,500 charging stations for electric cars in Chattanooga, Knoxville and Nashville by late 2010.  The experiment comes in conjunction with Nissan’s plan to launch sales of at least 1,000 Leaf electric cars in Tennessee.

Catherine L. Ross

Georgia Tech researchers also are studying ways to generate electrical energy from heat discarded by chemical plants, automobiles and solar cell farms, and NASA has awarded $2.4 million to Tech to develop a new type of radar system that will be used to study the Earth’s ice and snow formations from the air. The system could provide new information about the effects of global climate change.

Catherine L. Ross,  director of the Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development at Georgia Tech, is an adviser to the newly created White House Office of Urban Affairs and recently participated in the Clean Energy Forum at the White House.

Ron Taylor

Ron Taylor

Ron Taylor was born and raised in Georgia and worked more than 40 years at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as a reporter and editor and as an online producer for and AccessAtlanta. He served for a time as the newspaper's regional editor, overseeing coverage of the South. He is co-author, with Dr. Leonard Ray Teel, of Into the Newsroom:  An Introduction to Journalism and has conducted workshops in the Middle East on feature writing.