Home to the Tennessee Valley Authority and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Innovation Valley has long been a hub for the power and energy industry.
Companies like EnerNex, AMS Corporation, and Proton Power, along with the University of Tennessee, are helping change and improve the nation’s energy technology, production, and consumption.
Because of its prominence in the region, the energy industry has been included in Innovation Valley’s strategic plan as a target recruitment cluster. The plan, or Blueprint 2.0, outlines five target recruitment clusters that are perfectly suited to take maximum advantage of the area's strengths, especially its concentration of scientific and technological assets, central location, well-developed infrastructure, and low cost of living.
“You would be hard-pressed to find a location anywhere else on the planet that has more leading research and development in the energy sector,” said Doug Lawyer, vice president of economic development for the Knoxville Chamber. “Innovation Valley's goal is to get more high-paying jobs in this sector to locate here.”
As the nation’s power grid ages, the country becomes more susceptible to devastating power outages from either a natural or manmade disaster. Electric power research firm EnerNex and UT are both working on smart-grid technologies to bring U.S. electrical infrastructure into the 21st century.
“Smart-grid technologies are critical to ensuring that we can support those other infrastructures and the devices we depend on in our everyday lives with high reliability, security, and efficiency,” said Erich Gunther, chairman, chief technology officer, and co-founder of EnerNex.
Gunther said the development of smart-grid technology will help rising energy costs.
“The cost of traditional energy sources continues to rise as does the equipment necessary for transporting it to the consumer,” Gunther said. “The only way to keep those rising costs under control is to use technology to improve energy efficiency, leverage renewable resources more, and support new techniques to enhance energy supply resilience in the face of a disaster.”
EnerNex has partnered with several utility companies to determine what new technologies, products, and services are needed to support more widespread deployment of distributed generation, including renewable energy sources such as solar systems.
UT’s Center for Ultra-Wide-Area Resilient Electric Energy Transmission Networks, or CURENT, is also researching ways to improve the grid.
In 2011, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy awarded UT an $18.5 million grant to form CURENT. The center is a collaborative of academia, industry, and national laboratories. Locally, CURENT works closely with ORNL, TVA, and the Electric Power Research Institute to carry out its research.
“We hope CURENT can develop the technologies that will allow the power system to operate economically and reliably not just today but 20 or 30 years in the future,” said Director Kevin Tomsovic. “While no one can be sure what the future generation mix will look like (wind, rooftop solar, nuclear, gas, or something new), not to mention where that generation will be located, we want the grid to be flexible enough to work well no matter how the future unfolds.”
Tomsovic said the center has made great progress in getting its labs and testbeds set up for evaluating new technologies, and he hopes its presence at the university will help make Innovation Valley even more appealing to the energy industry.
“Knoxville and East Tennessee are already home to many power and energy companies. Hopefully, our center makes it an even more attractive location,” Tomsovic said. “We want to form startup companies in the area and encourage other companies to move here.”
In 1977, AMS Corporation was formed as a spinoff company from research performed at UT and ORNL by H.M. “Hash” Hashemian. The nuclear technology firm is a leading supplier of equipment, training, and services to virtually all 104 nuclear power plants in the U.S., as well as many in Europe and Asia.
“We test instrumentation and controls of nuclear power plants, Hashemian said. “This involves testing the sensors that measure the temperature, pressure level, and flow in a nuclear power plant and making sure they are accurate and respond fast. We also test the systems that shut down nuclear reactors,” Hashemian said.
AMS performs high-level technology research and development projects for a number of national and international organizations and governmental agencies, including the U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, U.S. Department of Defense, NASA, U.S. Navy, and the Electric Power Research Institute.
Hashemian said being in Innovation Valley allows AMS to partner with ORNL and UT, as well as have access to an excellent workforce. The company recruits heavily from UT’s College of Engineering, in particular the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
“We have the most wonderful, honest, loyal, hardworking and courteous workforce in East Tennessee, and this is by far one of our most precious assets,” Hashemian said.
Since 2005, Proton Power has been dedicated to developing innovative renewable energy systems designed for producing inexpensive hydrogen on demand from biomass and waste sources.
“All of our products are renewable and sustainable,” said Sam Weaver, president and co-founder of Proton Power. “We like to say we have the only technology that meets all of the green goals: scalable, on-demand, clean, carbon negative, economical, and renewable.”
Proton Power’s system is based on a gasifier called Cellulose to Hydrogen Power (CHyP). The system uses biomass feedstock to make inexpensive hydrogen, which is converted to energy as synthetic fuels, electricity, and heat. Proton Power currently serves entities like UT, Wamplers Farm Sausage, and AC Global Energy.
“The co-products from the system are biochar and water,” Weaver said. “The biochar recovers all the minerals the plant took out of the ground, plus contains 80-90 percent carbon. The biochar has many uses; the most obvious is as a soil supplement that is amazingly effective. Because we sequester the carbon in the form of biochar the process is carbon negative, meaning that the process removes CO2 from the air.”
Weaver, who has owned several companies, said that when establishing Proton Power, there was no question Innovation Valley was the place to be.
“All of our companies have been located in the region because of the excellent technical expertise in this area, particularly in energy, which has been a prime focus in all of our companies,” Weaver said. “So when it came to setting up Proton Power, there is no place in the country that is better suited than Innovation Valley.”