Brazilian energy company to set up shop on WCU campus

A partnership between Western Carolina University and a Brazilian-based company could eventually result in up to 300 new jobs for the region — if Vale Soluções em Energia, as hoped, agrees to build its yet-to-be-designed turbines here.

WCU Chancellor John Bardo touted the job-creation possibility this week during an announcement about the public-private partnership. What went unmentioned by Bardo and other speakers — including James Pessoa, CEO and president of Vale Soluções — is that the company is a subsidiary of the Vale Group, the second-largest mining company in the world.

Vale Soluções will operate in the U.S. as TAO Sustainable Power Solutions. The company and WCU plan to design and build turbines that use sustainable fuel sources to power generators. The company and university in June signed a four-year agreement.

WCU will provide a suite of offices for about 20 Vale Soluções personnel, plus give laboratory space and help with the turbines. It also has promised to put unidentified “key” company personnel on the faculty, “as appropriate.”

In exchange, the company is supposed to bring to WCU several pieces of high-tech equipment to create two state-of-the-art aerospace engineering labs, including devices to analyze the strength and vibration of turbine blades and to test their stress and thermal characteristics.

The turbine project will be run out of WCU’s Center for Rapid Product Realization, which gives students hands-on education in applied research while offering technical assistance to companies and entrepreneurs. Over the past five years, it has worked with more than 250 businesses across the Southeast on projects ranging from a new form of artificial poplar siding for houses to a device to help patients with rehabilitation from knee surgery to packaging for a Christmas tree ornament company.

This project goes the farthest, however, in mirroring the type of research typically associated with much larger universities.

Bardo and other speakers touted the green aspects of Vale Soluções, and painted a win-win scenario for all of Western North Carolina because of the partnership.

“This could result in a new way to generate power that is not reliant upon petroleum, which will be better for our environment,” Bardo said.

WCU Dean Robert McMahan, who oversees the College of Engineering and Technology, said last week the university was not aware there are allegations in Brazil and other countries of conflicts between Vale Group and indigenous people, environmentalists and trade unions. Vale Group is the largest producer of iron ore and iron-ore pellets in the world. It also mines for manganese and manganese alloys, nickel, copper, coal, potash and kaolin.

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