Leaders See Green Energy Dollars, Jobs
Regional leaders are calling it a "conservative" prediction that alternative energy industries could bring $800 million of investment and more than 4,250 new industrial jobs to West Michigan in the next five years.
That's what the seven-county region could reap if it captures just 1 percent of the U.S. development that will come from solar, wind and biofuels industries in the coming years.
The West Michigan region's industrial foundation is well situated to take advantage of the fastest-growing manufacturing sector in the United States, according to a new study by the West Michigan Strategic Alliance and the Right Place Inc. in Grand Rapids.
"You manufacture very well in West Michigan," said Richard Polich, the consultant from Energy Options & Solutions, which provided the economic study. "As a region, you can do much more than 1 percent of the (national) work in this area."
The alternative energy development study was unveiled at a Tuesday morning event at the Grand Valley State University Michigan Alternative & Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon.
The predicted figure of $169 billion expected to be invested in the United States in the alternative energy sector through 2015 is based on responses to the high cost of oil, depletion of fossil fuel resources, global warming concerns and a push by corporate America for "green" solutions.
Some of that investment already has found its way into West Michigan in the solar, wind and biofuels sectors. For example:
* Cascades Engineering in Grand Rapids has introduced two designs for small wind turbines that can be used in residential installations.
* PrimeStar Solar -- a Golden, Colo., developer of the next generation of thin-film solar panels -- is expanding its West Michigan operations in Montague's industrial park. The company uses the manufacturing capabilities of West Michigan to build the machines that will produce the company's solar panels.
* Reynolds Inc. -- a waste and energy system contractor from Orleans, Ind. -- will begin a new biomass division in Muskegon through the GVSU energy center. Reynolds built the $2.7 million manure-to-electricity plant that is beginning operations at the den Dulk dairy operations in Ravenna. Reynolds now plans to replicate the Entec Biogas technology from Austria throughout the United States.
GVSU's Sarah Lineberry will head up the new Reynolds division in Muskegon starting in January.
"To say there is a lot of interest in alternative energy is an understatement," West Michigan Strategic Alliance President Greg Northrup said. "But this truly has to be a regional issue if we are all going to be successful at it."
The GVSU energy center in Muskegon is a key regional resource for the alternative energy developments in West Michigan, Northrup said.
Right Place President Birgit Klohs said that West Michigan might first enter the alternative energy "supply chain" by making parts specifically for wind turbines. The other opportunity is for locating wind and biofuels operations throughout the region, she said.
"This region has the ability to transform itself and remake itself in this sector," said Klohs, who heads the Grand Rapids economic development agency. The other key Grand Rapids economic development strategy is in the life sciences sector.
Michigan has gone from fur trading and lumbering to manufacturing and is now searching for a new economic direction in the face of the downsizing of the automotive industry. Michigan is poised to take the lead in alternative energy, said Jim Croce, president of NextEnergy -- a Detroit-based, non-profit alternative energy development organization established by the state of Michigan.
"Alternative energy is the defining industry in the 21st century along with water," Croce said. "But this is a marathon, not a sprint. We are not going to change over night."
However, the state and the region finds itself behind other states. Wind energy turbine manufacturing and key parts supplies are coming from companies located in Illinois, Minnesota and Texas, among other states.
"Texas is the oil state but is the leading state in terms of siting wind turbines," Northrup said. "That tells us a lot about how things are changing."
Croce said that public policies in Michigan will go a long way in determining how successful the state and West Michigan will be in competing for its fair share of the alternative energy boom.
Maybe even more important than renewable mandates is a reform of the "buy-sell" agreements of the state's private but regulated electrical power companies, GVSU energy center Director Imad Mahawili said.
"The study really shows the tip of the iceberg of the alternative energy sector in the United States," Croce said. "What really happens for us in Michigan depends on public policies on energy and the environment."