Alternative Energy Production Could Preserve Facilities

February 11, 2008
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LANSING — The vacant factories that pockmark Michigan’s decaying industrial landscape loom large in laid-off workers’ minds.

They are blighted reminders of the good old days and an easier, gentler circle of life, a time when it was possible for a young man to join his father on the assembly line, ensuring a middle-class life for his children — children who would soon take their place alongside him on the line.

With Michigan now leading the nation in unemployment, this circle seems as broken as the rusted gates that stand sentry over those now-silent factories.

This was the case in Greenville three years ago when Montcalm County’s biggest employer, Electrolux Home Products Inc., shuttered its doors and shipped its manufacturing jobs to South Carolina and Mexico. The area lost more than 7,000 jobs.

It was the end of an era — or so it seemed.

Now, however, Greenville is home to a United Solar Ovonics — Unisolar — plant. The Auburn Hills-based company manufactures thin, flexible stainless steel solar panels and currently employees 800 people across the state, according to Mac McNeer of Unisolar.

Last year, the company collected $98.4 million in revenue and is expected to more than double that this year, McNeer said. Company projections indicate that Unisolar could take in as much as $225 million in 2008.

Greenville is now a leader in the production of alternative energy components — an industry that manufacturing leaders, economists and energy experts say could be the next big boom in Michigan’s economy.

James Epolito, chief executive officer of Michigan Economic Development Corp., said alternative energy is becoming an ever-more viable solution to the world’s energy woes.

And Dan Radomski, vice president of industry services at NextEnergy in Detroit, a nonprofit organization founded to promote the alternative energy industry in the state, said that alternative energy is also a diversified sector with opportunities for expansion in solar energy, wind manufacturing, biofuel production and advanced battery technology.

Both Epolito and Radomski say Michigan’s manufacturing legacy makes it particularly well-positioned to take advantage of economic opportunities in the alternative energy industry.

“Michigan is the center of manufacturing,” Epolito said. “Manufacturing is in our DNA. We have to capture the manufacturing of this diversified product in our diversified environment.”

Workers laid off from other manufacturing jobs already have skills in design, engineering, manufacturing and assembly that are attractive to alternative energy companies in need of a skilled workforce, Radomski said.

Beyond its skilled workers, Michigan also has a pre-existing manufacturing infrastructure. Factories currently sitting empty can be fitted with new equipment to produce solar panels or wind turbine parts.

The alternative energy sector seems promising for Michigan’s faltering economy, but these experts urge caution. They wonder if alternative energy can be counted on to deliver jobs and economic security to the state.

After all, Radomski said, “This industry is experiencing a boom right now, but with every business there are valley points. In 30, 40, 50 years, there will be a dip in business.”

For now, Unisolar in Greenville faces a three-year backlog for its low-light compatible solar panels, Epolito said. 

Another plant is currently under construction in Greenville, and McNeer said Unisolar has plans to expand its energy-producing capacity by 182 megawatts in the next two years.

McNeer said that most of Unisolar’s orders come from overseas. Germany, Spain, Italy and South Korea offer tax incentives for homeowners who install solar panels, creating a large and growing export market for these Michigan-made products.

No such national incentive program exists in the United States. U.S. legislators removed alternative energy incentives from the national energy bill in December.

Without a national program, the market for alternative energy systems domestically is limited to states like California that offer their own incentives, McNeer said.

Experts say jobs in the alternative energy sector could just be a temporary Band-Aid on the gush of jobs from the states. The key to making this industry serve Michigan workers, they say, is for the state to enact its own incentive program called a renewable energy portfolio standard.

“It is absolutely essential,” Epolito said. “You need a renewable energy portfolio standard. It is the key to making these companies come to Michigan and these jobs sustainable.”

Ongoing efforts to create a renewable energy portfolio standard would require 10 percent of Michigan’s electricity to be generated by renewable resources by 2015, Radomski said. Such a standard would create a market for a Michigan-made alternative energy system in the state.

The installation of those systems would create another category of jobs. A study by the Land Policy Institute at Michigan State University estimates that state incentives would create more than 4,000 jobs in construction and maintenance of alternative energy system by 2029. CQX

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