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St. Petersburg lures another high-tech firm

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Baker is courting a third high-tech research firm to Pinellas County.

RTI International, a not-for-profit firm based in the Research Triangle of North Carolina, is in discussions to relocate personnel at least temporarily to St. Petersburg, city officials say.

The company would join California firm SRI International and Massachusetts company Draper Laboratory, which opened area offices in the past three years.

Many details still need to be worked out. But at the center of any agreement, Baker said, would be a first-of-its-kind partnership between the three research firms. The focus: harnessing and storing alternative energy.

The deal would require federal stimulus funding, Baker said, not city money.

It also would be negotiated in the open, said the mayor, who has been criticized in the past for forging secret deals with private companies.

"We can't continue to build our economy solely on construction jobs and tourism," Baker said. "If we hadn't figured that out before, we should have figured it out by now. We need to find another way. Bringing another high-tech research firm to St. Petersburg adds another piece to the puzzle."

The three companies would work with Progress Energy to apply for between $10 million and $20 million in stimulus money, said Draper Lab principal director Leonard Polizzotto. The money, part of $126 million available for energy projects in Florida, is controlled by the state.

It's unclear how many groups may be competing for the money.

Baker and executives from SRI, Draper and Progress Energy met with state officials last week to discuss the proposed partnership. The state's Energy & Climate Commission could award the grants as early as this summer.

Baker hopes RTI stays

RTI officials say they don't know how many jobs the partnership could bring, or how long the jobs would remain in St. Petersburg.

Initially, RTI would set up in Draper's St. Petersburg offices at 10050 16th St. N.

The partnership calls for three years, but Baker said he would hope RTI would stay longer. "It would be my intent to try to keep them here," he said.

RTI is larger than both SRI and Draper, employing 2,800 people in more than 40 countries. Like Draper and SRI, it is considered one of the nation's leading research firms. Most of its projects are for the U.S. government.

Founded in 1959, the firm has created cancer-fighting drugs and built technologies for NASA. It currently is trying to turn the nonfood parts of crops — called second-generation biofuels — into a viable energy alternative. RTI also is working to assist in the development of local Iraqi governments and has helped cities in Africa develop plans for better infrastructure and health care.

St. Petersburg "seems to be a very good area to operate in," said Dave Myers, RTI's vice president for engineering and technology. "We think there's a great alignment between the government, academia and industry down there."

Collecting new energy

The three firms want to use stimulus money to create energy grids that run off alternative energy, lowering bills for customers and cutting harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

The new grids would help utilities balance electricity supply with demand. For decades, electric grids largely have been a one-way street, funneling electricity from large, centralized power plants to homes.

Now, utilities need to learn to manage a two-way street that includes small home power plants, like solar panels. The panels produce power only on clear, sunny days. The utilities need to find ways to manage such intermittent sources.

"We need to lighten the load of local power plants," said Larry Langebrake, director of SRI-St. Petersburg. "Take a chunk of coal. There's energy stored there. We can solve a storage problem by finding a way not to burn that chunk of coal."

Polizzotto said the consortium would hope to have a pilot project up and running by 2010. That means a neighborhood or small community in the Tampa Bay area would be outfitted with solar panels or wind mills or other technology to collect forms of alternative energy.

A pilot location has not been selected, said Vinny Dolan, Progress Energy Florida's vice president of external relations.

If successful, the project could be expanded.

The goal, Polizzotto said, is to help offset the fluctuations in energy consumption so traditional power plants can operate more efficiently.

Efficiency translates into lower greenhouse gas emissions, increased profits for the power company and lower rates for consumers, Polizzotto said.

"We want to solve problems," Polizzotto said. "We don't want to just sit in a room and think. We want to build things that work."

Times staff writer Asjylyn Loder contributed to this report.

FAST FACTS

RTI in a snap

Mayor Rick Baker is hoping to help secure federal stimulus dollars to bring RTI International to St. Petersburg. Tech research firms SRI International and Draper Laboratory already have offices in St. Petersburg.

• RTI was founded in 1959 as a partnership between four North Carolina colleges, including Duke and the University of North Carolina.

• Company employs more than 2,800 people in over 40 countries.

• Focuses included environmental, energy and health research.

• Biggest sources of revenue: U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Source: RTI International

St. Petersburg lures another high-tech firm 04/06/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 8, 2009 9:14am]
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