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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC Cleantech Summit highlights need for clean economy, green technology


Chris Womack, CEO of Southern Company, speaks at the UNC Clean Tech Summit in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Friday, March 22, 2024.

The 10th annual UNC Cleantech Summit was held on Thursday and Friday at the Friday Conference Center, which included a variety of keynote speakers and discussions about topics contributing to a clean economy.

The Summit invites academic, business and government professionals who work with clean technology to speak and network. Students also attended to experience and learn about various topics in the environmental industry.

The event was co-hosted by the UNC Institute for the Environment and the Kenan-Flagler Business School's Ackerman Center for Excellence in Sustainability. This year, the summit hosted over 1,000 attendees.

Penny Gordon-Larsen, UNC’s vice chancellor for research, delivered the welcome address and introduced the summit’s first keynote speakers. She said the shared mission of the co-hosts and the keynote institutions in attendance — including Dominion Energy and the U.S. Department of Energy — is to accelerate solutions for social and environmental sustainability.

"This is what convenes bright minds in academia and industry year after year to address some of the most critical issues faced by our state, and the nation,” she said.

With the growth of technology and a greater movement for carbon reduction, there is a need to innovate technological tools to combat the level of carbon in the atmosphere.

A common theme that unites the different clean technology sectors is the goal of achieving net-zero emissions by the year 2050. This midcentury milestone was set by President Joe Biden in Executive Order 14057 in 2021, and it intends to reduce carbon emissions to achieve a balance between the greenhouse gases produced and the greenhouse gas emissions that are taken out of the atmosphere.

David Turkdeputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, was one of the keynote speakers during the Summit. Turk’s career involves shaping national energy policies to further clean energy innovation. His address discussed the United States’ progress in achieving the net-zero commitment and what else needs to be done for that goal.

To be on track to achieving the net-zero goal, there is a strong need for an increase in government legislation and policies, more clean technological innovation and entrepreneurship, Turk said.

Victoria Farella, a UNC sophomore studying environmental science and data science, was one of the three student moderators for David Turk’s keynote.

She said when she first became passionate about environmental sciences, she was not sure which direction she wanted to take her studies in.

“I started to really hear more about renewable energy and the possibilities that it brought, and I realized that I could use a lot of my analytical skills for something that could actually influence change,” she said.

The summit also included multiple panels for discussing different clean technology sectors and methods. One of the panels, titled “Food service packaging and utensils solutions,” featured discussions about single-use plastics, degradation and the effects of microplastics on health.

Aaron Hall, a panelist and the founder and CEO of Intropic Materials, works to change the food packaging industry by creating additives that degrade plastic more efficiently and eliminate the creation of microplastics and nanoplastics.

Hall said that, although he loves the modern world, it has polluted and damaged the environment in a lot of ways, and he wants people across the globe to have a longer-term perspective on sustainability.

“If we could take that longer-term view, we could say, ‘Well, can we design things with the end in mind?'" he said. "'Can we adopt the things that are going to leave a better planet, that are going to make us healthier and that are going to make our planet healthier?’”

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