Mention Duke Energy to anyone in Florida, the Carolinas and the Midwest, and it’s almost certain that “electricity” will be the first word that comes to mind. That’s no surprise, considering that Duke Energy, with more than 57,000 megawatts of electric generating capacity across the country, is the largest electric power holding company in the United States. The company supplies and delivers energy to 7.3 million U.S. customers, including 1.7 million customers in 35 Florida counties.

What might be a surprise to learn is the high level of importance Duke Energy places on economic development and the number of resources and employee teams it devotes to its economic development efforts.

“People often say to me, “You’re a (utility) monopoly. Why would Duke Energy be involved in economic development?” says Danielle M. Ruiz, a Florida manager of economic development for the power company. “And I tell them, ‘Companies still have a choice among competitors around the country. There’s a lot of competition with us in the utility space.’ ”

Duke Energy’s service area in Florida includes the easternmost portion of Polk County, an area that falls within Ruiz’s zone of responsibility for economic development. As such, Ruiz often works closely with the management and staff of the Central Florida Development Council (CFDC), Polk County’s primary economic development organization. With a $5,000 annual commitment, Duke Energy is one of the CFDC’s 50+ investor partners.

Ruiz says Duke Energy and the CFDC have common economic development goals.

“We’re all trying to drive new business and expand existing companies, growing the tax base and bringing new jobs to the communities,” she says. “Polk County is vital to our business, so it’s vitally important that we be involved in economic development.”

Ruiz says Duke Energy has an economic development team in each of the states it serves.

“We’re dedicated to enhancing the areas we serve and proactively getting properties ready for development,” she says.

Working with organizations such as the CFDC, Duke Energy can provide business or industry recruitment leads, assist with financial incentives for qualified start-up companies, and be “one of the major partners to drive a project home,” Ruiz says.

“We want to enhance project development and cut their timeline for development,” she says, adding that help with site development would involve much more than just the electrical component.

Ruiz says that she and her Duke Energy colleagues have three primary components to their work — business development, product development, and economic development.

Business development — The task is “to funnel leads” for business recruitment, Ruiz says. This could be done through mission trips to cities such as New York, Chicago, or Atlanta; going to trade shows; or by getting on a site-selection committee’s “radar” and remaining in contact with a company’s consultants. Targeted industries include plastics and automotive; data centers; life sciences, food and beverage manufacturing; aviation and aerospace; and general manufacturing, including plastics-related general manufacturing.

Product development — Ruiz says this is a four- to five-month process that examines site suitability for substantial development, site readiness, typography, animal species, all utilities, infrastructure, and transportation systems (including roads, rail, and ports). Working in partnership with a local economic development council, which would help with site research and data collection, Duke Energy pays for a consultant’s work to produce a comprehensive site analysis.

Economic development — This involves examining a project’s design and engineering plans, reviewing existing electrical load capacities within a project area; determining the project’s anticipated electrical loads and capacities, and projecting rate estimates.

Ruiz says that as Duke Energy works to develop its own business leads, the company shares information with the local and regional economic development organizations. That would include the CFDC for projects in eastern Polk County.

“We try to see how best we can enhance our business partnership and provide leads” for the CFDC, she says.

While details about some potential new business projects remain private and go by Duke Energy code names, such as “Project Copper,” Ruiz cited the recently completed Amazon “sortation” center near the Davenport area as a good example of the CFDC-Duke Energy partnership. Duke Energy is also working with the CFDC on the development of the Pebble Ridge Industrial Park on the northwest corner of U.S. highways 27 and 98 near Frostproof in southeast Polk County.

Ruiz says that in the best interests of economic development for both Duke Energy and Polk County, “We try to get involved early on to drive a project to where we serve.”

Information is key to successful business recruitment, Ruiz says.

“We want to have knowledge of the workforce and the project or site, and we want to have a list of available buildings in our database,” she says. “We have to have knowledge of the sites and the workforce. If we don’t have both of these things, our competitors do.”