Renewable energy adds to West Michigan economy

January 11, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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Renewable energy generated news and jobs in 2008 — and the hope that someday America won't have to rely on foreign oil.

In May, the Business Journal broke the news that two major commercial wind farm developers, including a Spanish firm that is the largest of its type in the world, were quietly but aggressively leasing thousands of acres of "wind rights" in northern Kent and Ottawa counties.

Cascade Engineering became the buzz when it began assembly and shipment of the Swift Wind Turbine, an innovative small turbine that is virtually vibration-free and can be economically mounted on the roof of a house. It has been produced in Scotland for several years, but now Cascade Engineering is making the plastic rotor blades for all Swifts worldwide. The company has exclusive manufacturing and distribution rights in the U.S. and Canada and hopes to sell a thousand or more Swift turbines a year.

New state legislation provides an incentive to purchase small wind turbines. A net metering law requires the big utilities to buy excess power from a homeowner's wind turbine at retail rates, not at a discount, as had previously been the case.

The Renewable Portfolio Standards will also eventually require commercial utilities in Michigan to get at least 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources — a boon to commercial wind farms.

Solar energy is shining, too. The parent company of United Solar Ovonic, Energy Conversion Devices of Auburn Hills, announced it would double its work force at its two Greenville plants by adding 517 employees by 2010. Later in the year, the company said it will build a $220 million plant in Battle Creek at the Fort Custer Industrial Park, creating about 350 new jobs.

United Solar manufactures Uni-Solar, a thin, flexible laminate that converts solar energy into electricity and can be attached directly to roofs. Most Uni-Solar product goes to Europe, but the U.S. market is expected to grow due to new federal investment tax credits for solar and alternative energy.

Early in 2008, a new $2.7 million biogas energy plant was fired up at the den Dulk dairy farm in Ravenna, built by the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon in partnership with Reynolds Inc. of Orleans, Ind. A $1 million Michigan Public Service Commission grant helped fund the project. Methane from manure is burned in a micro-turbine to generate electricity and thermal energy. It is expected to provide more than half of the electricity required by the dairy — one of the largest in Michigan — but the biodigester will also help avoid potential ground water pollution and release of methane into the atmosphere.

Methane has 23 times the negative impact of carbon dioxide on the atmosphere. Many scientists are convinced global warming is caused largely by release of carbon into the air, from burning of fossil fuels but also from other forms of carbon such as methane. Landfills are a major source of methane that can be captured and used to generate energy, or used in chemical plant processes. A chemical plant in the Muskegon area now uses methane piped to it from buried sewage sludge at the Muskegon Wastewater Treatment Facility.

Early this year, a methane-fired electrical generating plant at the South Kent Landfill in Byron Township will go online. That electricity will be bought by Consumers Energy and added to the grid. Kent County is expected to sell about $381,000 worth of electricity in 2009 — enough to power about 1,700 homes. In addition, the anticipated future sale of carbon credits could generate hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

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