Focus Getting Off Power Grid

January 23, 2004
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MUSKEGON — When the blackout of 2003 began last August, more than 50 million Americans and Canadians experienced the limits of the U.S. power grid firsthand.

And while that blackout didn't directly affect most West Michigan residents, they certainly have had their own problems with the grid during the past five years.

Violent straight-wind storms from Lake Michigan have given thousands of shoreline and Grand Rapids area businesses and residents lengthy power outages in both winter and summer.

Starting this year, however, the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center (MAREC) in Muskegon hopes to begin establishing a new direction that would avoid such widespread outages.

The center is a business incubator and research and development center for alternative and renewable energy technologies operated by Grand Valley State University.

And according to its executive director, Imad Mahawili, Ph.D., the center also is to be a major demonstration project of new power-generation technologies.

Mahawili said the key to avoiding future blackouts is distributed generation rather than a distribution grid.

Under the current system, he explained, people receive power from a few mammoth power plants that transmit energy to communities through long, vulnerable power lines. In a distributed generation system, he said, the power could be generated by a widespread network of modest-sized power-generating fuel cells and other technologies.

Mahawili said the current electrical grid presents several problems. He said not only is it vulnerable to weather and terrorist attack, but the plants supplying it use antiquated and inefficient technologies that rely on dwindling resources.

Mahawili speaks not merely as an academic, but also as an inventor and businessman.

According to GVSU, he holds 16 patents and has another five pending. He also is the founder and former owner of several technology firms, most recently Micro C Technologies Inc. and IsoComforter Co.

His own interest in alternative and renewable energy began with his work as a chemical engineer in the wake of the 1973 oil embargo and energy price crisis.

At the time, he was developing feedstock from coal for the chemical industry as a consequence of the crisis.

He said the center in Muskegon will demonstrate a distributed power generation system using fuel cells and renewable energy sources.

The problem with fuel cells is that like any other power generator, they first require power to operate — either fossil fuel or electricity from the power grid generated either by fossil fuel or nuclear energy.

The cell at the center — a product of FuelCell Energy Inc., of Danbury, Conn. — uses natural gas to generate electricity.

Mahawili hopes that eventually, instead of using natural gas, the center will be able to use biomass fuel converted from farm waste into methane to power the fuel cell. (It so happens that during the 1973 energy crisis when Mahawili was developing feedstock from coal, just such a notion tentatively was proposed as one of the synergies for Muskegon County's massive and innovative wastewater treatment system.)

The center was designed and is being built by Workstage LLC, a real estate development and design build firm that is part of the GVSU team trying to make buildings run on eco-friendly power.

Workstage, founded by Steelcase Inc. and The Gale Co., and backed by Morgan Stanley Real Estate Funds, also offers design development, construction and project management, general contracting, procurement and financing.

Workstage designed the structure with the notion of making it self-sufficient in terms of power. It has photovoltaic cells to capture solar energy, and a nickel metal hydride battery to store excess energy from peak times for use later.

According to GVSU, the center is thought to be the first building of its kind to use all of those technologies to be independent of the power grid.

The hope for the facility, which opened in autumn, is that it will attract new energy technology businesses to the region and provide incubator space and support to start-up companies.

GVSU advises that the center also will offer energy technology and economics seminars and training to area businesses.

"I see the MAREC as a timely and critical vision for the development of economically viable technologies for alternative and renewable energy resources for our nation," Mahawili said.

The center is part of one of 11 SmartZones created by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. in 2001 to promote and attract high technology business development to Michigan. GVSU was the only university in the state to be granted two SmartZones — one in Grand Rapids and one in Muskegon.

Tim Schad, vice president for finance and administration at GVSU, said he is pleased with the many partners working together in this project.

"Michigan is poised," Schad said, "to be a leader in the application of fuel cell technologies in both stationary and mobile applications.

"The Muskegon SmartZone is a joint venture between MEDC, the city of Muskegon and Grand Valley State University for the purpose of research and business incubation in alternative energy."

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