State, Muskegon Turned On By Alternative Energy

May 6, 2002
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MUSKEGON — A major state initiative to turn Michigan into the center of fuel cell and alternative energy research and development should complement — and not compete with — Muskegon’s similar vision for its SmartZone high-tech business park.

By focusing on niches within the alternative energy field, backers of the Muskegon Lakeshore SmartZone can “take full advantage” of the state’s NextEnergy proposal that envisions clustering the emerging alternative-energy industry in Michigan, with the centerpiece being a research center and tax-free business park on state-owned land near Ann Arbor, Michigan Economic Development Corp. CEO Doug Rothwell said.

“To me, they are very complementary in nature,” Rothwell said during an address at the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce’s April Early Bird Breakfast. “The initiative you have here in Muskegon can take full advantage of that.”

The Muskegon Lakeshore SmartZone envisions turning the former 34-acre Teledyne Continental property along Muskegon Lake into a high-tech business park that would focus on attracting firms involved in the research and development of photovoltaic (or solar energy) cells and large stationary fuel cells for use in buildings.

The SmartZone, one of 11 designated around the state a year ago, is touted as a major component to Muskegon’s ongoing revitalization. Backers of the initiative largely agree with Rothwell’s assessment on the effects NextEnergy would have locally.

“It’s everything we wanted,” said Cindy Larsen, president of the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce. “The initiatives in Ann Arbor are aligned with Muskegon.”

The Muskegon Lakefront SmartZone includes a demonstration project that would use photovoltaic panels, stationary fuel cells and micro turbines to power the entire business park.

Interest in the demonstration project is “very strong,” said Dave Mielke, dean of Grand Valley State University’s Seidman School of Business. GVSU is a partner in the Muskegon Lakeshore SmartZone with the City of Muskegon and the MEDC.

Mielke is meeting this month with the CEO of a corporation interested in participating in the demonstration project and hopes to have a favorable announcement by the end of the month, he said.

“This is going to be big,” Mielke said.

Like Rothwell, Mielke sees NextEnergy as a positive for Muskegon’s plans. The broader statewide initiative brings far greater attention and emphasis to alternative energy, benefiting all parties.

“It gives additional credibility to what we’ve started,” Mielke said. “It can only benefit us here.”

A narrow focus on alternative energy niches can enable the Muskegon Lakeshore SmartZone to carve out a leadership role in the industry in Michigan, rather than play catch-up or compete against major players in the industry, Rothwell said.

“We want to make sure everybody can play for this,” he said. “There are many technologies that have their own niche role to play from.”

Gov. John Engler proposed the NextEnergy initiative last month to position Michigan to take advantage of the new emerging energy technologies, especially as the automotive industry evolves into the use of fuel cells to power vehicles.

“The heart of NextEnergy is transforming our cluster of auto innovation into a cluster of energy innovation. NextEnergy will power Michigan’s future,” Engler said.

More than 27,000 people in Michigan are presently employed in the production of automotive power trains. Another 200,000 jobs are linked indirectly at suppliers that support the manufacturing of engines and transmissions, Rothwell said.

The employment levels illustrate the importance alternative energy can play in Michigan’s economic future, Rothwell said.

“Michigan really has a lot to lose if we don’t get on the bandwagon,” he said. “This is an issue that is of huge state importance.”

The NextEnergy initiative, which still needs legislative approval, includes:

  • Development of a research center affiliated with the University of Michigan to serve as a clearinghouse for information, education and research on alternative energy technologies.

  • The Michigan NextEnergy Zone, a 700-acre, tax-free business park on state-owned land in York Township for alternative energy companies.

  • Exemptions from the state’s Single Business Tax and personal property tax for companies, or activities within companies, whose primary focus is alternative energy research, development or manufacturing, no matter where they’re located in Michigan.

  • Spurring demand by exempting from the state sales and use taxes any purchase of stationary and vehicular devices using alternative energy technologies.           

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