Wolter Puts Energy In SmartZone

September 25, 2002
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MUSKEGON — Cool idea, Jim Wolter thought.

Yet the idea two years ago of developing a research center in West Michigan that would help bring to market products that use emerging alternative energy technologies wasn’t going to happen through the efforts of one man or one organization.

To do it required the forging of new partnerships with the commitment and foresight to see the effort through.

“We thought it was a capital, grand idea. Whether or not people caught the vision was the question,” said Wolter, long-time marketing professor at Grand Valley State University who helped bring together the parties involved in the new fuel-cell research center and business incubator planned as part of the proposed SmartZone high-tech business park in Muskegon.

Wolter, an academic and former “lab rat” who worked several years at General Electric Co. early in his career, will steer the new research center as GVSU’s director of energy research for the Muskegon Lakefront SmartZone.

Wolter brings to the position a diverse professional background that gives him an understanding of the science of alternative energy technologies, as well as the market viability of the products that emerge.

“In many ways, everything I’ve done in my life has positioned me to do this,” Wolter said. “It’s the culmination of a lifetime of experience.”

A holder of undergraduate and graduate degrees in physics, Wolter worked on energy projects as an advanced development engineer for GE during the 1960s and 1970s before moving into marketing. He left GE as a vice president of marketing to come to West Michigan in 1978 and become director of marketing for the former Bastion Blessings Co. in Grand Haven.

Wolter, who also holds graduate and doctorate degrees in marketing, joined the GVSU faculty in 1981 as a marketing professor. From 1987 to 1990, he served as director of the MBA program at GVSU’s Seidman School of Business.

A native of Albion who was a “boy mechanic” and always tinkering with things mechanical and “fussed around with things electric,” Wolter says he saw a great opportunity in mid-2000 when the Michigan Economic Development Corp. announced it was seeking proposals for a series of high-tech business parks around the state known as SmartZones.

His interest in alternative energy technologies stems from his work as an advanced development engineer at GE years ago, and his involvement with Harding Energy Inc., a Norton Shores firm that develops and produces rechargeable nickel hydride batteries that store energy.

The time has come, he believes, for a center that focuses on researching, developing and helping to bring to market products that use alternative energy sources such as solar photovoltaic cells and hydrogen-powered fuel cells. Problems such as U.S. dependence on foreign oil, instability in the Middle East, and California’s energy crisis during 2001 are driving a growing interest in alternative energy, Wolter said.

“The energy fever’s catching,” he said.

Alternative energy technologies are now on the verge of breaking out — from nickel hydride batteries used in products like hybrid cars and a camping lantern that Wolter invented that’s charged by solar cells, to large commercial fuel cells that generate electricity on-site in homes or office buildings and provide a complement to traditional power sources.

“Their commercial viability is about to happen,” said Wolter, who sees the GVSU research center and business incubator acting as a “diffusing agent” that helps to bring products using alternative energy technologies to the marketplace.

“It is time for a university to build a center like this to participate in the natural evolution of a new public market development,” he said. “We’re here to show the public how it works.”

Once GVSU signed on to the idea two years ago, the next step was to find a host site. That opportunity came in Muskegon, where the city was putting together a SmartZone proposal and beginning to work with a local law firm, Parmenter O’Toole, on the possible redevelopment of the former Teledyne property along Muskegon Lake as a high-tech business park.

The collaborative effort that evolved in Muskegon led to the successful designation in the summer of 2001 of the Muskegon Lakefront SmartZone, one of 11 around the state.

“Call it serendipitous, call it coincidental, whatever,” Wolter said of the public-private partnership that emerged to create the Muskegon Lakefront SmartZone.

The effort received a major boost this summer when Siemens Corp., the U.S. arm of German conglomerate Siemens AG, agreed to become a partner in the SmartZone project. Siemens will provide the commercial fuel cells that provide power for the research center, as well as for a generating station to power the entire business park.   

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