WCU strikes business deal with Brazilian-based company

A company with South American roots will set up U.S. headquarters on the campus of Western Carolina University in a partnership to design, develop and build turbines.

A public announcement about the deal is scheduled for next week. The Smoky Mountain News, under the state’s Public Records Law, requested and received a memorandum of agreement between Vale Soluções em Energia, based in Rio de Janeiro, and WCU.

Vale Soluções em Energia is a subsidiary of the Brazilian-based Vale Group, the second-largest mining company in the world.

About 20 Vale Soluções employees will work on WCU’s campus. The college will provide the company a suite of offices on the second floor of the Centers for Applied Technology building, said Robert McMahan, dean of WCU’s College of Engineering and Technology, called the Kimmel School.

Vale Soluções em Energia is operating in this country as the newly formed TAO Sustainable Power Solutions.

The company and the university plan to develop turbines to power generators that will use renewable fuel sources such as ethanol, McMahan said.

Vale Soluções em Energia and WCU in June signed a minimum four-year agreement. In addition to a number of confidentiality and intellectual-rights agreements, WCU agreed to appoint “as appropriate” qualified key company personnel to faculty positions.


Human-rights issues?

Any concerns about WCU entering into a business relationship with a Brazilian company that has global mining interests are misplaced, McMahan said.

The WCU dean said he was not aware allegations existed in Brazil and other countries of conflicts between Vale Group and indigenous people, environmentalists and trade unions. McMahan said WCU had not formally checked the organization’s background, but added that during the year or so of negotiations with Vale Soluções em Energia officials, he’d developed a positive feeling toward the company. McMahan said he believed that “due diligence” by WCU leaders has taken place, and distanced the university from the parent company.

“We are not working with Vale,” McMahan said. “Vale is not involved. This is VSE and their subsidiary, TAO Sustainable Power Solutions … there is no direct connection with Vale and their mining.”

Additionally, McMahan said, the work involving Vale Soluções em Energia employees and WCU faculty, staff and students is environmentally friendly.

Chancellor John Bardo approved the deal. The state Department of Commerce is aware of WCU’s plan to work with the company, the dean said.

One Sylva environmentalist, however, asked about the possibility of a WCU-Vale Group connection, expressed concern the university would enter such a relationship, even if — as McMahan stated — it were a tenuous one.

Vale Group is the largest producer of iron ore and iron-ore pellets. It also mines for manganese and manganese alloys, nickel, copper, coal, potash and kaolin.

“The entire coal cycle is a human-rights violation and an irresponsible environmental abomination,” said Avram Friedman of the Canary Coalition, a Sylva-based group that works on clean-air issues.


The plan

Though downplaying any connection with Vale Group, McMahan pointed to the company’s consumption of “enormous amounts of fuel” in remote areas around the world as a significant reason generators fueled by renewable resources were envisioned.

Additionally, the generators are supposed to help power the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, McMahan said.

The WCU dean, at Smoky Mountain News’ request, said he’d asked the company to contact the newspaper Monday. The company had not responded to this request for comment before press time, midday Tuesday.

A U.S. engineer working with Vale Soluções em Energia lives in Franklin. He alerted the company to the existence of the Kimmel School, McMahan said.

WCU, among other attributes, will bring engineering skills to the task of building turbines for the generators, McMahan said. The company intends to make significant investments in the project. A dollar amount has not been decided on, he said.

Ultimately, WCU hopes to demonstrate that Western North Carolina would be a viable setting for the company to manufacture the generators.

Within Kimmel School is the Center for Rapid Product Realization. Unique in the University of North Carolina system, the center is designed to help students learn how to apply theoretical knowledge to real-world situations, and to help grow the region’s economy.

See also: Foray into turbine business part of WCU’s mission, college says

Kimmel School is supplied with state-of-the-art equipment, such as a $150,000 scanner. The scanner was put to use recently in scanning antique furniture for Hickory Chair. This helped the Hickory company in its effort to reproduce similar-styled pieces for market.

“There are unique capabilities here that exist only in a few places in the country,” McMahan said, explaining WCU can help a company or entrepreneur move from “idea to application.”

During the past five years, WCU has worked with more than 250 companies and individuals in WNC and the Southeast.


Who is WCU doing business with?

Vale Soluções em Energia, a subsidiary of Vale Group, is a Brazilian-based mining company with global interests. Brazil’s government privatized Vale, previously called Companhia Vale do Rio Doce, in 1997. It now operates in 35 countries and on five continents.

In this country and in the United Kingdom, Vale (pronounced vah-lay) Soluções em Energia has recently spun-off into TAO Sustainable Power Solutions (U.S) and TAO Sustainable Power Solutions (U.K.).

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