West Michigan charging ahead for electric vehicles

December 12, 2010
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LANSING — General Motors launched its hybrid Chevy Volt recently, and Nissan’s electric car, Leaf, will soon be on the market. Meanwhile, West Michigan is ready to play a major role in the electric vehicle world.

The area will become a manufacturing base for vehicle cells and one of the first regions where electric car owners can plug in their vehicles, experts say.

“This is an extremely large opportunity,” said Bruce Adair, director of business services at Lakeshore Advantage, a Zeeland-based economic development organization.

Adair said West Michigan’s high-tech work force has attracted world-class advanced battery manufacturers. For example, South Korean company LG Chem is building a 600,000-square-foot lithium-ion battery plant in Holland and plans an electrolyte production facility nearby.

The company makes batteries for the Chevy Volt and has contracted with Ford Motor Co. to supply batteries for its 2012 Ford Focus BEV.

Adair said Johnson Controls-Saft, a U.S.-French joint venture, is assembling vehicle cell packs in Holland and will produce its own cells next year.

Michael Shore, director of corporate communications at the Michigan Economic Development Corp., said state tax incentives help businesses build facilities. In turn, they must hire Michigan residents, Shore said.

For example, fortu PowerCell Inc., a European manufacturer, is getting a tax credit of more than $100 million to build a battery plant in Muskegon, which will invest $623 million and employ 726.

Adair said the LG Chem and Johnson Controls-Saft projects will bring about $500 million in investment and more than 1,000 jobs. A Howard City business, Flex-Cable, is set to produce a cable to connect the battery to the engine of the Chevy Volt and other electric cars. It will invest $222,000 and create at least 26 jobs.

Shore said there’s an increasing need for skilled employees, so universities and community colleges help train the work force for the industry. Adair said Grand Rapids Community College started a certificate program this fall to improve worker skills for advanced battery manufacturing.

In addition, the area is setting up charging stations for electric cars. Arn Boezaart, director of the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center at Grand Valley State University, said the first station will be built outside his center by the end of the year to demonstrate the new technology.

The stations are funded by ChargePoint America, a federal program that helps priority urban areas establish electric charging station networks. One installed in Detroit in September was the state’s first under the program.

“In West Michigan, we can participate in it,” Boezaart said. “You combine the communities of Grand Rapids, Muskegon and Holland, and it represents over a million people.”

Boezaart’s center, along with West Michigan Strategic Alliance in Grand Rapids and the Holland Board of Public Works, are identifying potential locations and encouraging communities to install the charging technology.

But some communities are reluctant because the federal money covers only the hardware, Boezaart said. He said someone who wants to set up a charging station must pay an installation fee of up to several thousand dollars.

“They would rather wait until the demand is greater,” Boezaart said.

But Adair said it’s important to create an infrastructure and a work force to help the industry expand.

“We see this as a growing sector,” he said. “We want to do everything we can to facilitate taking advantage of the opportunity that’s been presented to us.”

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