Energy Advocates Urge Action

December 21, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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MUSKEGON — Panelists at a meeting on alternative energy called upon the Michigan legislature to enact a "renewable energy portfolio" that would require some of the electricity used in the state to come from renewable resources such as wind and solar.

"Our legislature just doesn't understand the critical situation we are in," said William Stough, CEO of Sustainable Research Group, one of the panelists at the Grand Valley State University Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center last week. The meeting, attended by economic development directors and business executives from the region, was organized by The Right Place Inc., in collaboration with the West Michigan Strategic Alliance.

The two organizations recently commissioned an analysis of the West Michigan "energy cluster" and presented the findings at MAREC. They also provided a panel of energy and economic development experts to take questions from the floor.

According to a summary of the analysis, alternative and renewable energy is the fastest growing market in the U.S., driven by public awareness of the impact of greenhouse gases, depletion of oil and gas reserves, expensive foreign oil and increasing U.S. demand for energy.

The analysis and resulting recommendations are "focused on what the region could realistically expect to achieve over the next three to five years on a proactive, cohesive and aligned set of economic strategies."

The analysis reports that 24 states and the District of Columbia "are already ahead of Michigan in the alternative and renewable energy market because they have implemented aggressive energy policies."

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the 25 have adopted a Renewable Portfolio Standards policy, which requires those who sell electricity to have a certain percentage of renewable power in their energy mix. The policies typically start at around 1 percent to 5 percent of renewable energy in the first year, with a goal of 4 percent to 20 percent in approximately 10 years.

The report states that Michigan's "best opportunity for growth over the next five years" is to capture a potential $800 million by manufacturing components for the alternative and renewable energy industry sector.

In the power production arena, the best opportunity for the region is to pursue the installation of wind turbine power generating capabilities with a potential investment of $400 million, creating approximately 85 jobs, according to the analysis.

Rich Polich, president of Energy Options and Solutions, a consulting firm that worked on the analysis, said wind generators sometimes fail for reasons related to machine work in the manufacturing process. Machining, he added, is something "West Michigan does well."

Polich said there are 770 firms in Michigan that can be involved in business related to alternative energy products, with the potential of providing jobs to more than 4,000 people.

"And that's doing what you already do," said Polich.

Birgit Klohs, president of The Right Place Inc., agreed with Polich.

"We have an incredible manufacturing sector here. Manufacturing is not dead," she said.

James A. Croce, CEO of NextEnergy, added that Michigan has excess manufacturing capacity available "by and large, across the state."

Polich said the Legislature has been urged for nearly two years to consider legislation that encourages development and use of alternative energy.

"It's been taking a very long time. We need it now," he said.

Greg Northrop, president of the West Michigan Strategic Alliance, pointed out that "ironically, Texas, the oil state, has the most wind turbines in the United States." He said Michigan will require an additional 292,000 megawatts of power in the future.

Imad Mahawili, executive director of the Muskegon Smart Zone, said Michigan has practically no fossil fuel, but it does have wind and solar energy potential and it does have biomass in the form of farm animal waste that can be used to produce methane gas. Mahawili, who holds 16 patents, was previously a developer of semiconductor thermal processing equipment. He sold his company to Kokusai Electric Co. of Japan.

The Michigan House is considering a bill that would require electricity providers to obtain at least 10 percent of their electricity from renewable resources by 2016. Other bills, however, work against alternative energy, according to Polich.

Stough noted that United Solar Ovonic LLC is now producing photovoltaic cells in Greenville for generating electricity, and many of them are being shipped to Germany because the government there provides incentives to property owners to purchase renewable energy equipment.

Germany is the world's largest photovoltaic market because of the incentives, some of which "can cover up to half the investment cost," said Tracey S. Rettig, a spokesperson for United Solar Ovonic, which is based in Auburn Hills. She added that in the United States, only California offers similar incentives to consumers.

Rettig would not divulge how much of Ovonic’s production goes to Germany. However, she noted that "the U.S. is our biggest market for our product."

As of Nov. 2, there were 153 employees at United Solar Ovonic's Greenville plant, which has 203,000 square feet.   

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