Economic Transformation News

New Director Enslin Joins the EPIC Team at UNCC

From the Charlotte Business Journal:

Leading UNC Charlotte's EPIC effort in power sector

by John Downey

Friday, July 22, 2011

Johan Enslin becomes director of UNC Charlotte’s Energy Production and Infrastructure Center (EPIC) on Aug. 1, bringing more than 29 years of experience, much of it in jobs straddling the power industry and academia.

He figures to be comfortable in his new position.

Shaw Power Group’s Jeff Merrifield, a member of the EPIC advisory board, sees EPIC filling the same applied-research role in Charlotte’s “energy hub” effort that Stanford University provided in California’s Silicon Valley in the 1970s. And that’s what Enslin envisions as he prepares to assemble the 25-member faculty for the multidisciplinary power-industry center.

Enslin, 52, was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa. He trained at the University of Johannesburg, going on to teach and work on renewable-energy and transmission issues in Africa and Europe.

He came to the United States in 2003 to help establish the U.S. smart-grid operation for the Dutch firm KEMA in Raleigh. He has since worked in renewable-energy divisions at Alpha Technologies and Quanta Technology.

When he was first approached about the EPIC post last fall, Enslin demurred. He had just been hired as chief technology officer for Petra Solar, an innovative energy company based in New Jersey. The talks resumed months later, and he worked out an agreement that allows him to continue his work at Petra. It includes a deal between Petra and the university for technology exchange and the development of intellectual property.

Enslin sat down last week with the Charlotte Business Journal to talk about his new job and his goals for EPIC. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Your professional background is largely in renewables and smart-grid technology. UNC Charlotte has promoted EPIC as a center for energy issues across the board, including the traditional energy resources of nuclear, coal and natural gas generation. What do you bring to those issues?

I have some nuclear background actually. I worked in South Africa with Eskom on their pebble-bed reactor (an advanced design that Eskom has since suspended work on, although research continues elsewhere). But for getting into the technology of nuclear and coal, we really have a great team here at UNC Charlotte — world experts in these areas. We really are going to try to leverage some of that expertise into larger proposals, larger projects, larger programs. The industry is looking at the complete package of generation, production, transmission and distribution and the smart-grid all around it.

If you ask five people what the smart grid is, you will get five definitions. What’s yours?

Well, the grid is pretty smart to start off with. It’s got 99.99% reliability, and we want to make it better. We want to make it more renewable. I think that’s a key part of smart grid. To make it cleaner. To have less reliance on (fossil fuels) and also to improve the carbon footprint of our power generation.

Those are the key fundamentals for smart grid. The technology is really things like feeder automation. To automate the processes. To automate the power transfer. Improve the power quality on the system. Those are the most common views of smart grid.

We also see smart grid as going all the way into the homes of the customers, to really start looking at automating the large power devices. Your large HVAC systems. Your washer and dryer. In the future, of course, your electric vehicle. The goal is to automate the usage of those units.

You will be continuing your work with Petra Solar when you come here. How did you get to Petra, and what do you do there?

I got an offer from Petra Solar to be their chief technology officer — really developing their road map. Developing intellectual property.

Petra is a great company. We have a totally new segment in the market, taking photovoltaic cells and really applying them on all kinds of assets — roofs, utility polls, even highway structures.

We won a large project with PSEG, a large utility in New Jersey, a $200 million project we are half through. We also have a number of smaller projects across the country. We are also working in Jordan and the Middle East.

So when did the university contact you about EPIC?

I think it was just literally a month after I started there. It was last October, I believe. The university recruiter contacted me and said “You know we’ve got this great position here at UNC Charlotte.”

I looked at the position and I thought this was just the ideal fit, right in the middle between industry and the university. Even when I was with all these companies, I was an adjunct or something at a university. I told the recruiter, “Well, this is great, but I just started this new job and I really would like to give this a few years’ chance.”

But you reconsidered. Why?

It was in April. The recruiter came back, and I contacted him. What appealed to me was it’s really a great team of people which have really this entrepreneurial spirit. They think outside the box a bit. What really appealed to me here (is) that I’m in a group that really wants to build new things. So you can really be a part of this regional development.

So what is your goal at EPIC?

Oh, I think really to put EPIC on the world map in terms of education, in terms of industry participation, in terms of getting the students educated for the next 50 to 100 years on energy.

I think it’s crucial to get the right faculty. It’s something like 25 (people), throughout the departments (in the school of engineering). There are some identified already in each department that have a real energy focus and background. But the real stages will be to go and find new people and really build this out.

Charlotte’s one of the financial capitals of the country. So we need to leverage some of the financial companies out there, leverage the energy companies and build out this center to be really top-notch.