Muskegon Takes The Lead Again

June 10, 2002
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It’s time to applaud Muskegon. The Port City is vibrating with excitement over its SmartZone, which two years ago was a weedy brownfield facing an unsightly aggregate storage yard across a filthy, trash-choked slough.

The site — once occupied by a sprawling Continental Motors Corp. manufacturing plant — is becoming a mixed-use zone of modern dwellings and offices, plus what’s being dubbed “the Energy Center of Excellence” — all with a fuel cell plant that will power the zone.

Linking up intellectual capital, human energy, and technical and financial support is a partnership of the SmartZone’s backers, and Grand Valley State University and Siemens AG. The zone will be Siemens’ showcase for its stationary fuel cell manufacturing plant in Pittsburgh. The zone’s backers feel that if they promote their development properly, a good part of the world will beat a path to Muskegon to see fuel cells in practical operation.

We sincerely hope so. The world would do well to see more of West Michigan in action.

At this point an irony raises its head.

With the arrival of the mid-70s, Muskegon literally led the world — still does, in fact — in wastewater reclamation.

Muskegon is the first community on earth to put together a number of different techniques not merely to treat sewage, but to harness nature in transforming sewage into actual clean water. Muskegon Lake — khaki-colored in the 60s — is a sparkling, cerulean pleasure to behold today.

Certainly, much of the world came to Muskegon to see the wastewater system in action: civil engineers from Tel Aviv to Melbourne and Moscow and Singapore, to name a few. They learned and left. But the area’s political leaders at the time — minds mired in the foundry era — had all the go-getting energy and imagination of croaking frogs on a log. They couldn’t be bothered promoting what, to them, was just another DPW function. To this day, the only excitement about the wastewater system seems to occur when a main breaks.

It seems safe to say, though, that such will not be the case with Muskegon’s SmartZone.

To begin with, GVSU is very much on hand as a participant to be the research institute. And that’s good from a couple of standpoints. It will put Muskegon’s SmartZone on the science, engineering and energy map.

GVSU-administered research also will deal with the practicalities of fuel cells that — despite what the tree-huggers say — are not a panacea.

Without question, hydrogen fuel cells are clean — unless you’re worried (we are not) about generating carbon dioxide. Nonetheless, fuel cells are not energy sources. Rather, they are energy storage units analogous to batteries.

The process of energizing a fuel cell with hydrogen cracked either from methane or water takes — guess what? — power. Moreover, Sallie Baliunas, Ph.D., senior astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, argues it takes more energy to fuel a cell than the cell can return, and the source of that energy is natural gas, coal or nuclear fuel.

None of this is to say, however, that fuel cells don’t make a great deal of sense.

For starters, they can do something that ordinary power plants can’t: They can store energy. Moreover, making them practical is the crux of the practical research that is going to get underway in Muskegon as early as next spring.

We couldn’t be more excited for Muskegon and its energetic community leaders who came out of nowhere two years ago to blindside the Michigan Economic Development Corp. with an idea it just couldn’t refuse.

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