11 months ago

Birmingham’s Southern Research, Southern Company help put Alabama on cutting edge of renewable energy future

BIRMINGHAM — Southern Research on Tuesday held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for its new Energy Storage Research Center, which is the first of its kind in Alabama and is indicative, industry experts said, of the Yellowhammer State positioning itself at the forefront of next-generation energy needs.

The ceremony was held in collaboration with Southern Research’s partners on the important project: Southern Company, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), the U.S. Department of Energy and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.


The Energy Storage Research Center will serve as an industrywide resource for testing chemical, mechanical and thermal energy storage systems under actual conditions while offering increased reliability and resiliency; better management of peak load demand; and increased integration and value of intermittent renewable resources such as wind and solar.

The center will allow third-party innovators from the electric utility industry, academia, government and technology the ability to research, develop and demonstrate energy storage solutions.

At the end of the day, the goal is for this energy research to turn into real-world uses for utilities, as well as the commercial and industrial sectors. This is something that Southern Research and Southern Company have both long excelled at as partners, speakers during the ceremony said.

In fact, Southern Research’s senior director for energy & environment, Corey Tyree, explained that this is no accident, as Southern Research’s founder was a former CEO of Southern Company. Tom Martin founded Southern Research in Birmingham in 1941.

Since then, the independent, nonprofit, scientific and engineering research organization that supports clients and partners in the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, defense, aerospace, environmental and energy industries has grown into a national gem. Southern Research’s staff of nearly 400 now works across four divisions in the pursuit of entrepreneurial and collaborative initiatives to develop and maintain a pipeline of intellectual property and innovative technologies that positively impact real-world problems.

Market forces

One of these problems for the energy sector in modern times is reducing carbon emissions. While renewable energy research has been underway across the world for some time now, solutions are still not ready for renewables (solar, wind, hydropower, etc.) to overtake traditional sources such as natural gas and coal.

Yet, the market is demanding increased renewable energy usage — and fast, Alabama Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield advised during the ceremony.

He said he was present to speak to the fact that “the state of Alabama, through the Alabama Department of Commerce, has been focused on being a facilitator for the accelerated growth of renewable energy options and the research, testing and validation of the future generation of energy storage technologies that are necessary to scale renewables at the utility level.”

Canfield stressed this growth was being driven by market forces. He also emphasized that it is important to develop and implement the technology in a scalable way so “that renewable energy can be brought into reality at a cost-effective and truly market-sustainable fashion.”

“In just four years, we’ve participated in economic development activities across this state which have seen renewable energy for power production increase by three-to-four fold,” Canfield explained.

He said this growth in renewable energy use throughout the state’s grid has been made possible by the efforts of utilities such as Alabama Power Company, PowerSouth and TVA.

Canfield pointed to new Google, Facebook and Walmart facilities as being specific examples of economic development projects in Alabama that called for increased renewable energy usage.

“All of these companies, as well as many others that we are recruiting into our state and helping build the business environment to expand in our state, we’re finding that more and more every day [are] demanding green, sustainable, renewable energy as part of their operation in Alabama,” Canfield stated.

He outlined that the recent significant growth in renewable energy capacity is going to “continue to accelerate.”

“The demand for sustainable energy in our state, as well as worldwide, will continue to accelerate,” the commerce secretary added. “And it will come from customer demand.”

He explained that utilities in the state are “reacting to” this market demand, and projects like the new Energy Storage Research Center will help them do this as effectively and economically as possible.

Canfield said the state had provided seed money for this project going back to 2016 or 2017 and is a proud partner in the endeavor.

“This center really… is about the future of our state [from an economic development perspective],” Canfield noted. “It’s about the future of our nation, it’s about energy independence. But it’s also about how do we make capturing energy produced from renewable sources more readily available on a cost-effective basis. And ultimately that cost equation is what we’ll need for widespread adoption in the marketplace.”

“I can’t wait to see the future work that comes from this research center,” he concluded.

‘Clean, safe, reliable, affordable energy’

Roxann Walsh, director of reduced carbon, renewable and distributed energy research and development for Southern Company, also spoke during the ceremony.

She spoke on behalf of Southern Company and its subsidiary, Alabama Power, expressing that innovation is in the “DNA” and “spirit” of both entities.

Walsh said that this week’s celebration of Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary is an especially fitting time to announce this forward-looking endeavor. This year also marks a half-century of Southern Company’s modern energy research and development efforts.

The company has grown into the nation’s second-largest utility company, with innovation as a staple.

“[P]roviding clean, safe, reliable, affordable energy” is the core goal, Walsh advised.

The company’s “robust” research and development efforts help them keep up with market demands and actually get ahead of consumer needs.

Today, much of that focus is on renewable energy solutions and smart home/neighborhood projects, according to Walsh.

She said part of their success in these endeavors comes from collaboration with diverse partners across various sectors, just like the new Energy Storage Research Center.

The partner-leaders involved in the project affirmed Southern Company’s commitment to collaboration, innovation and renewables during the ceremony, including Charlie Vartanian of the U.S. Department of Energy and Mark McGranaghan of EPRI.

“We’ve always had a great relationship with Southern Company,” McGranaghan said. “Southern Company is kind of the model of establishing the participation and collaboration [across sectors for turning research into practical uses and technologies].”

Through this public-private partnership, led by Southern Research and Southern Company, the future is bright for the Yellowhammer State.

Canfield concluded, “[T]his facility puts Alabama at the forefront of some of the most important research being done for renewable energy in the U.S.”

RELATED: Rebuild Alabama bill puts state on cutting edge of electric vehicle infrastructure

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

12 hours ago

Southern Company turns to Alabama manufacturer for face masks

With government guidelines recommending people use protective face masks and practice safe social distancing during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Southern Company has turned to local businesses to supply its needs and protect public health while also helping support the economy.

Southern Company’s partnership with HomTex, a family-owned textile company in Cullman, is one recent example. Alabama Power is a subsidiary of Atlanta-based Southern.

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Founded in 1987, HomTex has transitioned from producing bedding and home products to manufacturing up to 300,000 masks per week. That number is expected to continue to ramp up as the company becomes more familiar with the process.

The shift to mask production has allowed HomTex to keep all 150 of its employees working, with an expansion in the works.

“When this opportunity presented itself, a lot of people in the textile industry looked to HomTex to lead,” said Maury Lyon, HomTex vice president of apparel. “It has been a tremendous blessing to provide a high-quality and filtered product that hopefully is helping keep people safe. It is also unique that we could provide a U.S.-made product that we could put into our communities.”

So far, Southern Company has ordered over 1.5 million dust masks from HomTex, along with 500,000 cloth masks. The masks are shipped to Alabama Power’s Materials Distribution Center before being sent all across Southern Company’s footprint.

“Southern Company is committed to helping our communities thrive no matter the time or circumstances,” said Jeff Franklin, Southern Company senior vice president of supply chain management. “HomTex is doing critical and tremendous work for our community and we are thrilled to partner with them. Southern Company will continue to do our part to keep our communities healthy during the national response to COVID-19.”

Last week, Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth visited the HomTex facility in Cullman. He is working alongside the company to help it receive U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for its masks. Lyon said the company expects FDA approval within the next week.

FDA approval is only needed for masks used in medical settings. It isn’t required for facial coverings recommended for most workers and for members of the public when social distancing can’t be effectively maintained.

Last month, HomTex announced a $5 million project that is expected to create an additional 120 jobs in Cullman and position HomTex as a permanent U.S. producer of personal protective equipment at a time when domestic production of the gear is considered a national security priority.

According to a story posted on the state Department of Commerce website Made in Alabama and reported by Alabama NewsCenter, the company secured a $1.5 million loan from the Cullman County Economic Development Agency to cover the down payment on the equipment. It has worked with the commerce department and others on incentives to accelerate the project.

In addition to its headquarters and plant in Cullman, HomTex has a distribution center in Vinemont and manufacturing facilities in North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

“Nothing moves this fast in the textile industry, and the fact we were able to do this over the course of days is amazing,” said Jerry Wootten, HomTex CEO. “We really just wanted to help our community and find a way to serve them first.

“It is unique that we could use our skills to help the community this quickly. It has been a blessing to supply these needs,” Wootten said.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

14 hours ago

The need for education reform didn’t die with the defeat of Amendment One

When voters defeat a proposed state amendment, it is often thought that the matter is put to rest. That is often the case, but when Alabama’s voters went to the polls in March and shot down a proposal to replace the elected state board of education in favor of one appointed by the governor, they only answered the question of the board’s composition.

They did not answer the deeper problem of the board’s accomplishment.

Whatever the makeup of the board, the problem of the state’s bottom-of-the-barrel ranking in education persists, and that’s the real problem that demands the state’s attention. Fortunately, some concrete proposals have recently come to light.

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As part of a legislature-approved expenditure in 2019, the state department of education underwent a lengthy evaluation process by the Boston-based Public Consulting Group. The report was done with an eye towards improving the mission and function of the board of education. Without saying as much, the report reinforces the noted problems with the board, much of which inspired the call for an appointed board, but the report is also an opportunity for the elected board to correct much of its own shortcomings. The report was presented to the board a couple of weeks ago, with more detail provided in the report’s executive summary. (The full report can be found here.)

The report makes many suggestions, but it hones in on five specific goals.

The first is the most pertinent: the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) must take ownership of education reform and accomplishment in the state. That seems obvious enough, but reality is that the ALSDE has spent years operating in something of a caretaker role while the overall achievement of the state has remained in a steady state of decline. Indeed, this is largely why some advocated for a complete overhaul of the board’s structure; because elected politicians won their spot on the board through political maneuvering and have done nothing to move the needle of achievement in the state.

It’s true that most of the education reform in Alabama has originated in the Legislature in recent years. That’s not an optimal situation; it would be better if those reforms were enacted either by appointed officials who don’t directly face the voters, but at least the school board faces reelection on the basis of its achievements on education alone, as opposed to legislators whose record is on multiple issues which may only be tangentially related.

Yet the legislature has been proactive precisely because the board has done next to nothing in terms of real reform to education in Alabama. Given the sorry state of affairs, that is inexcusable.

There are countless education reformers around the country of all ideological persuasions – left, right, and center – doing interesting and innovative work, and much of it in dialogue with one another. It takes minimal effort to become acquainted with those ideas, but thus far, the state board has proven itself to be uninterested.

That must change.

The report’s executive summary details other items. The ALSDE must “develop and implement a strategy to action plan,” as the current arrangement leaves it constantly reactive, instead of taking a proactive approach to improving and then sustaining high levels of achievement in the state. The summary goes on to state that the ALSDE must set clear priorities in terms of both academic standards and student data and information. As a former educator, this is vital.

State standards must be clear, and while they should constantly be in review, they should be largely left alone long enough to be implemented and performed for a reasonable period of time.

The summary presents two additional items.

The ALSDE must begin to hold local districts accountable for their performance. Everyone recognizes that there are multiple externalities that can affect a district’s performance, but those factors cannot prevent the state from asking the central question: “Is this district doing its job?” Until that question can be confronted clearly and directly by all involved, Alabama is destined to stay where it is.

The ALSDE must make thorough use of data and be willing to confront all local districts with it.

The summary closes by noting that the internal structure of the ALSDE itself must be overhauled, with a deep investment on staff training. Reading between the lines, it seems that this very important department of state government is beset by many of the problems that hamper bureaucracies large and small. One interesting idea is the proposal to create regional ALSDE offices that can work in closer collaboration with local districts. This could be a very helpful step that gives the state greater knowledge of the specific strengths and weaknesses of individual districts.

Voters made their choice on Super Tuesday.

The state board of education will remain an elected body for the foreseeable future, but the professional analysis makes plain the need for a systematic overhaul.

It is critical that the board take these recommendations to heart and begin the process of implementation. That process should not stop with them; voters should spend time with this report with an eye towards the next election cycle.

The report is not just a blueprint for how the board should correct itself. It is a blueprint for voters to hold accountable a cast of politicians who have for too long provided little more than hospice care to a department of education that has failed at its most basic task.

Matthew Stokes, a widely published opinion writer and instructor in the core texts program at Samford University, is a Resident Fellow of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit educational organization based in Birmingham; learn more at alabamapolicy.org.

18 hours ago

Rep. Martha Roby: Raising mental health awareness during COVID-19

As you may know, May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental health has become a pressing issue, impacting tens of millions of people each year in the United States. Nearly one in five American adults live with mental health disorders and illnesses according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has surely heightened stress, fear, and anxiety for many Americans. During uncertain times like these, it is important to care for yourself and those close to you by focusing on mental health.

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The current state of the nation due to COVID-19 can be overwhelming. Taking proper care of yourself and others can help manage this anxiety. Be sure to find ways for you and your family to reduce stress such as connecting with friends and family over the phone or participating in exercise and other outdoor activities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises these quick tips for stress management during COVID-19:

–Take breaks from COVID-19 news and social media content.
–Make time to sleep, exercise, and unwind.
–Take care of your body.
–Reach out and stay connected.

One way to lower stress that surrounds COVID-19 is to ensure the information you take in regarding the pandemic is factual. Contradictory information exists online that can create unnecessary and avoidable stress, which can further impact one’s worrisome feelings toward the virus. Find a reliable source that is trustworthy to gather information. A resource that several public officials have recommended as a dependable outlet for information is the state health department. Know the facts about coronavirus, and help stop the spread of rumors.

Americans continue to adjust to unaccustomed lifestyle changes. With these rapid changes implemented in our daily routines, it is normal to feel uncertain or skeptical. Alabama has been under some form of stay-at-home order for over two months now, and the participation has played an important role in slowing the spread of COVID-19 in many communities across the state. That does not mean adjusting to new, unfamiliar routines has been easy. Investing in care and protecting your mental health is essential during these challenging times. For more information on coping with stress during COVID-19, visit the CDC website. For general information on mental health, call 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Martha Roby represents Alabama’s Second Congressional District. She lives in Montgomery, Alabama, with her husband Riley and their two children.

20 hours ago

Hyundai and Sony ink multi-movie promotional partnership

The next Alabama movie star may hail from Montgomery, have four wheels and a Smartstream engine.

Hyundai Motor Company and Sony Pictures Entertainment announced a new multi-movie promotional partnership Wednesday that will see Hyundai cars and technology promoted in five upcoming feature films.

The announced movies include “Uncharted,” based on the popular video game of the same name and due out July 2021 starring Tom Holland, Mark Wahlberg and Antonio Banderas. Sequels to “Spider-Man: Far from Home,” due in November 2021, and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” due in October 2022, are two other announced titles.

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Two other undetermined Sony feature films will also be included in the deal.

Specific Hyundai models to be featured have not been disclosed. Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama produces the Sonata and the Elantra sedans and the Santa Fe SUV. Beginning next year, it will add Hyundai’s first pickup, the Santa Cruz crossover, to its lineup.

The pickup launch in 2021 seems ripe for a major movie promotion that year.

A friendly, neighborhood Santa Cruz, anyone?

HMMA’s $388 million engine plant in Montgomery is also one of the first in the world to produce the Smartstream G1.6 T-GDi engine that will feature the world’s first continuously variable valve duration (CVVD) technology.

“It is exciting to see the Hyundai brand involved with upcoming movie productions,” said Robert Burns, vice president of Human Resources & Administration at HMMA. “Even though the release doesn’t specify an Alabama-built vehicle, we can hope a Sonata or Santa Fe will get a cameo.”

Beyond movie appearances of existing and concept vehicles, the partnership presents opportunities to leverage Sony for marketing content and immersive entertainment, to co-create virtual reality and gaming experiences, and to co-produce events.

“This strategic partnership with Sony Pictures will allow customers to understand and experience our  human-centered future mobility vision through innovative vehicles and technologies, illuminating a way forward for transforming how we move, interact, and design our lives for optimal benefits,” said Wonhong Cho, executive vice president and Chief Marketing Officer of Hyundai Motor. “We will offer various ways to inspire our customers and movie fans around the globe.”

Hyundai Motor will also offer substantial marketing support and the companies will collaborate on a wide range of ancillary content-creation.

“This deal embodies the true definition of the word partnership,” said Jeffrey Godsick, executive vice president of Global Partnerships and Brand Management and head of Location Based Entertainment at Sony Pictures Entertainment. “The deal has many layers, including substantial marketing support, but its real potential and impact come from groundbreaking content that we will develop together.”

At the consumer technology showcase event CES 2020, Hyundai Motor Company unveiled its innovative vision for urban mobility to help revitalize human-centered future cities. The three-pronged approach to realize the vision includes:

  • Urban Air Mobility (UAM), a new form of mobility utilizing air space to drastically reduce transit time;
  • Purpose Built Vehicle (PBV), an eco-friendly urban mobility device allowing customization for diverse lifestyles; and
  • Hub, a space for mobility transfer and community activities.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

20 hours ago

Rodney Scott talks barbecue, new Alabama restaurants, overcoming COVID-19

Those who ordered Rodney Scott’s barbecue at the Market at Pepper Place Memorial Day weekend may not have realized it was the James Beard Award-winning chef and Barbecue Hall of Fame semifinalist himself loading their cars with ribs and pulled pork.

Scott would be more recognizable if not for the face mask – though it was well-branded with the Rodney Scott’s BBQ logo.

The logo and, most importantly, the food are becoming more and more recognizable in Alabama thanks to the growth of the restaurants outside of Scott’s original Charleston, South Carolina, location.

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Birmingham’s Pihakis Restaurant Group has partnered with Scott to build more restaurants. The first opened in Birmingham’s Avondale neighborhood more than a year ago and will be joined by one in Trussville later this year and one in Homewood next year. An Atlanta location is also in the works.

The Avondale location got a full year under its belt before the COVID-19 pandemic slammed the restaurant industry. Scott said luckily the shift to takeout-only didn’t hurt the barbecue business as much as some others.

“That’s one of the awesome things about barbecue. You can take barbecue and you can reheat it if necessary,” he said. “You can drive it home and it’s not a problem to take it home and enjoy it the same way that you would if it came right off of the fire.”

With the partial reopening of dining rooms and hopefully a slowdown in the spread of coronavirus during the summer, Scott sees light at the end of the tunnel.

“This pandemic, this too shall pass,” he said. “We’re going to be great. Everybody is definitely going to eat again.”

That’s not just a partner in the Pihakis Restaurant Group and the 2018 James Beard Best Chef Southeast talking, it’s also a current semi-finalist for the American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame.

“It’s an honor just to be mentioned, honestly,” Scott said. “Just to be connected with some of the greats. That’s huge for me.”

With summer barbecuing season now under way, Scott offered some safety tips for those firing up their grills and smokers at home, which you can watch in the video below. He also shares how he likes to sauce his own meat.

Rodney Scott shares his grilling and marinade tips from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Grilling at home is great, but considering the economic damage wrought by the pandemic Scott encourages people to support restaurants and others in the food industry. Scott was the featured chef Memorial Day Weekend at the Market at Pepper Place, where customers are supporting local farmers and food vendors by ordering items online and picking them up.

Watching customers have their cars loaded with fresh produce, bread, goods and his own barbecue was inspiring, Scott said.

““We will get through this,” he said.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)