Witness to transition from smokestacks to clean energy

December 7, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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T. Arnold "Arn" Boezaart, the new executive director of the Grand Valley State University Michigan Alternative & Renewable Energy Center, is a self-described “lakeshore guy. I've worked in Muskegon all my careers."

When he moved to the area in 1972, Muskegon was "sort of near the zenith of its manufacturing heyday. And then I rode the curve to the bottom," along with the manufacturing base.

Boezaart is careful to emphasize the "s" on careers. His first career began in 1972 with the Michigan Department of Human Services and lasted 26 years. His second career began in 1997 when he was offered a position with the Community Foundation of Muskegon County, which was interested in launching an environmental program.

"Because I had an undergrad (degree) in natural science, and because of the community work I had done, that seemed to be well-received by the Community Foundation," he said.

As vice president of grant programs at the foundation, Boezaart oversaw the acquisition and installation last year of a small 1.5 kW Swift wind turbine on the roof of the Frauenthal Performing Arts Center in downtown Muskegon, which is owned by the foundation.

The Swift was assembled by Cascade Engineering in Grand Rapids, which manufactures the rotors, and was the first it has installed in Michigan. The foundation also set up an educational display in the Frauenthal lobby with monitors and gauges that show exactly how much electricity the turbine is producing, along with the wind speed and direction of the wind.

Early this year, Boezaart began his third career when GVSU hired him to serve as interim director of the Michigan Alternative & Renewable Energy Center, or MAREC. The first executive director, Imad Mahawili, had stepped down to pursue private business interests. In November, GVSU named Boezaart to the post permanently.

T. Arnold "Arn" Boezaart

Company: GVSU/Michigan Alternative & Renewable Energy Center
Position: Executive Director
Age: 62
Birthplace: Rotterdam, The Netherlands
Residence: Spring Lake
Family/Personal: Wife, Lynne, and one daughter
Community/Business Involvement: Leadership committee of the Muskegon Area Sustainability Coalition; Michigan Great Lakes Wind Council; volunteer at Grand Haven Area Community Foundation.
Biggest Career Break: Invitation to apply for an opening at the Community Foundation for Muskegon County in 1997 to lead the launch of its environmental programs.

Located on the edge of Muskegon Lake in the Muskegon SmartZone, MAREC opened in 2003 with a mission to serve as an educational center and a catalyst for economic development. With a full-time staff of four, it is a business accelerator and center for research, development and the commercialization of alternative and renewable energy technologies.

Boezaart, 62, was born in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. When he was 9, his parents moved to the U.S. under a special immigration program offered to people living in economically devastated Europe in the aftermath of World War II. His family was sponsored by the Reformed Church, which helped them find a home near Hall and Madison in Grand Rapids.

After graduation from South High School, Boezaart attended Michigan State University, where he earned a degree in natural science. From there he went to grad school at the University of Michigan, earning a Master of Social Work with a management emphasis on policy development and administration.

Muskegon was still very much a heavy industry town when Boezaart started working there for the state Department of Human Services.

"There was always a perpetual brown cloud over Muskegon when I arrived," he recalls.

Over the years, however, the air began to clear — an ominous indication of the loss of thousands of factory and foundry jobs as Muskegon became part of the Midwest Rust Belt. It only got worse in the late 20th century as more American manufacturing left for cheaper labor abroad.

Boezaart remembers going into the Campbell, Wyant & Cannon Foundry as a young social worker, looking for the parent of a youngster who was one of his cases. It was "an eye-opening experience," he said — a hot day outside and hotter inside, where sweating men were shoveling core sand by hand in the smoke and heat.

He noted that the wages were good, but there were considerable health risks in factories and foundries 35 or more years ago.

Ironically, MAREC is located today on land that was long occupied by a huge Continental Motors plant that employed thousands of West Michigan workers for decades.

Working with community leaders in 2006, Boezaart was among the founders of the Muskegon Area Sustainability Coalition, and he still serves on the coalition’s leadership team promoting sustainability issues in the greater Muskegon region.

He also had experience developing the Community Foundation of Muskegon’s environmental program in partnership with the Great Lakes Community Foundation Environmental Collaborative.

"I've been part of the transition" from a smokestack industrial economy to the beginnings of a cleaner one, said Boezaart.

MAREC, before Boezaart was a part of it, was the incubator space where an innovative small wind turbine was initially developed. The device, which generates electricity at the tips of multiple blades and operates in very low wind, will carry the Honeywell brand and will be made by WindTronics, a company with headquarters in Muskegon. The Honeywell turbine is slated to be sold in Ace Hardware stores once in production.

MAREC is an educational facility where functioning devices demonstrate various alternate ways to generate power. Up to 1.8 kilowatts of electricity is generated by a small wind turbine. A microturbine fueled by natural gas generates 30 kilowatts, and photovoltaic panels on the roof generate up to 30 kilowatts in maximum sunlight. There is also a fuel cell that can generate 250 kilowatts — more than twice as much as the MAREC now uses. It is kept on standby status, however, because it is expensive to operate and because Michigan lacks feed-in tariffs that would facilitate the sale of the excess energy on the grid, according to Boezaart.

Researchers at MAREC also are studying advanced battery technology, but the big push is research into the feasibility of offshore wind farms.

Since Boezaart started working at MAREC, he has been leading the search for funding with which to eventually build a wind- and currents-measuring platform several miles out in Lake Michigan off Muskegon.

Federal funds are available if matching funds from the state can be had, said Boezaart, but he added that the proposed project "is a very expensive proposition" that will require more than federal and state funds. The rest may ultimately come from entrepreneurs who want to partner in development of offshore wind power.

Boezaart is very interested in wind-generated electricity, although he is upfront about noting that he is not "a wind-energy expert."

"I'm not a scientist or researcher, but I do believe wind energy is in our collective future, in this country in general and in the Great Lakes region in particular," he said.

Based on contacts he has had with many people active in the wind-energy sector, "I believe it is incumbent on us to really explore how we can benefit from wind energy."

Of course, at this point in time, it is cheaper to generate electricity with coal than wind turbines.

"Wind energy is expensive, certainly, in its earliest stages" of development, he said. "And it's generally recognized as being twice as expensive to do it offshore," he said.

"On the positive side, we also know that the winds offshore are much more robust than they are on shore," he said. Offshore also offers opportunities to place large wind turbines out of sight, as opposed to having wind farms in populated areas where there are "still mixed feelings about that."

"The real power of wind to be harvested is offshore," he said, regardless of whether that is the East Coast or West Coast, or out on the open waters of the Great Lakes, he said.

Muskegon Lake offers a deep water harbor next to a once-thriving industrial city, which has now been identified "as a potentially very important location for the development of the offshore wind industry that is to come," said Boezaart.

That industry will need a lot of onshore support, he said, including manufacturing and staging areas for assembly of large turbine components.

MAREC has already played a role in the educational aspect of that future economic development that is so badly needed now in Muskegon. A consortium of West Michigan community college representatives, along with some from GVSU and Ferris State University, met there last summer to start planning for the training that the new work force will require.

"We see the Muskegon port and Muskegon downtown area as an important part of the gateway to developing offshore wind technologies," he said.

"MAREC is a natural site for that," added Boezaart.

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