A Degree In Alternative Energy

December 8, 2003
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MUSKEGON — The head of Grand Valley State University’s alternative and renewable energy research center hopes to see a proposed certification program that he wants to kick off next autumn eventually evolve into a degree.

GVSU currently is weighing whether or not to launch a certificate program in renewable and alternate energy technologies in September.

The program — to train technicians for an industry believed to be in its infancy — would be conducted at the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center that the university runs in Muskegon.

The executive director of the program, Imad Mahawali, Ph.D., said his long-range vision is for the certificate course to become a degree program for professionals working in an entirely new industrial sector.

Muskegon community and business leaders hope that a major part of that new sector — alternative and renewable energy sources — comes into being through applied research at the energy center.

Mahawali also said he hopes to see alternative energy education expand and become a viable part of GVSU’s business school.

“That is my deepest hope and ambition. That will take some time, though,” Mahawali told the Business Journal.

To start, Mahawali said, Grand Valley is considering launching a certificate program that would offer both theoretical and hands-on training.

He said the program would provide “grassroots experience” for students working with renewable and alternative energy technologies such as fuel cells, and solar and biomass power generation.

Currently, reports Tim Schad, vice president of finance and administration, the university is working to gauge market demand for such a program.

He said he’s optimistic that there’s enough of a demand to at least launch a certificate program, although a final decision won’t come until after a market analysis is complete.

He indicated that a small certificate program could potentially plant the seed for a broader degree program in renewable and alternative energy technologies, with market demand providing the ultimate test for what may occur in the future.

“If a lot of people are interested, this is how things start,” Schad said. “We’ll see how it grows.”

The newly constructed energy center lies in Muskegon’s SmartZone, a high-tech business park immediately north of the city’s downtown mall, which is now in the final stages of being razed.

The business park is known as Edison Landing, and is one focus of the shoreline community’s efforts to develop an economic sector focused on alternative energy research and development.

Before his appointment as director of the center, Mahawili founded, built, managed and later sold two Grand Rapids area companies, IsoComforter Co., a maker of orthopedic medical devices, and Micro C Technologies Inc., which produces semiconductor thermal processing equipment.

He holds a bachelor's degree and doctorate in chemical engineering from the Imperial College of the University of London.

Work at the center not only will involve how to maximize electrical production from alternative generation methods, but also how — or whether — to tie those alternatives to existing power grids.  

The center, which also is designed to serve as a business incubator facility, includes space for start-up firms working in the alternative and renewable energy field.

The 40,000-square-foot research center was constructed by Workstage LLC, a venture partially owned by Steelcase Inc.

The center is designed to become energy self-supporting through the use of fuel cells, solar energy cells, and high-efficiency heating and cooling systems.

Beyond education and serving as a business incubator for entrepreneurs, the research center will work on projects designed to prove or disprove the viability of alternative and renewable energy technologies.

Alterative energy research has been a hit-or-miss thing all over the earth and often has sparked controversy. The Danish government, for instance, more than a decade ago pioneered the development of electricity-generating wind turbines erected on masts in the shallow North Sea.

The North Sea wind farms, however, required heavy subsidies and provided insufficient power to offset Denmark’s requirements for coal-generated electricity from Germany.

Meanwhile, similar wind farms in the American west have elicited bird-lovers’ protests as intense as Michigan conservationists’ attacks upon the salmon kills resulting from operation of the Consumers Energy power station near Ludington.

Proposals for similar wind farms in the Atlantic shallows immediately off Massachusetts’ coast have drawn furious protests in the past month from such staunch defenders of the environment as Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

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