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Our New Big Three

Wind, solar, and battery power are keys to Michigan’s next industrial era

February 22, 2010 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Evergreen Solar
  Panels made by Evergreen Solar Inc., an East Coast company with a Michigan factory, line 2.7 km of Germany’s A3 Highway Tunnel roof. They produce close to three megawatts of solar power.
There has been a lot of healthy discussion lately about the environmental aspects of onshore and offshore wind power in Michigan, and whether it really could bring significant employment to the state.

Environmentally speaking, I believe that fuel-free, emission-free energy sources, like wind and solar energy, are responsible energy choices in a carbon-constrained world.

And I also believe that bringing wind power to Michigan can be great for Michigan’s economy—even in the face of stories like the one aired on ABC News on Feb. 9, which pointed out that it’s European, not American, manufacturers that are profiting handsomely from the big surge in wind turbine installations in our own country.

It is very important for Michiganders to understand that Europe’s current lead in turbine manufacturing—and China’s recent moves to pull ahead—are hardly set in stone. And it is absolutely crucial to remember that, in fact, few places in the world are as well equipped as Michigan to lead in wind turbine and solar panel manufacturing, as well as in another technology that’s key to the world’s clean-energy transition: advanced battery technology.

Consider: The 194 sovereign countries of the world are nearing a quite remarkable consensus on the need to reduce greenhouse gases to avoid the worst effects of global warming. The reduction target for industrialized countries is 80 percent by 2050. At the same time, energy experts project that, even with large-scale adoption of energy efficiency measures, the world’s energy demand will double by 2050, thanks mostly to the economic growth of the developing world.
To even come close to making such dramatic emission reductions during a time of escalating energy demand requires a radical rethinking of how we generate and use energy. It means we need to reach near-zero emissions from the electrical generation and transportation sectors within about 40 years.
The magnitude of the challenge brings to mind the words of John Gardner:  “What we face is a series of great opportunities disguised as insoluble problems.”

The New Big Three
That is why, led by Governor Jennifer Granholm’s vision, our team looked closely at the economic growth prospects in manufacturing components for clean energy’s Big Three: wind, solar, and advanced battery technology—and found them to be simply astounding.   

Now, when most people think of advanced batteries, they think of electric cars. But the importance of high tech batteries goes well beyond the auto industry.

That is because energy storage is the key to making wind and solar energy “dispatchable”—i.e., continuously available—just like energy from existing “baseload” coal, natural gas, and nuclear plants. High-tech batteries will allow our homes and businesses not just to use electricity, but to store it. That will make them not only more energy self-sufficient, but also able to profit, as energy entrepreneurs, by selling their stored power back to the grid when electricity demand is peaking, the sun is not shining, or the wind is not blowing.

Happily, the wind blows a lot in Michigan—across both of our peninsulas and the Great Lakes that surround them. So wind energy holds significant job creation potential for Michigan—not only in turbine installation, but also in the much larger component manufacturing sector.

According to U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Michigan is one of the four states that will create more than 30,000 manufacturing jobs in the wind sector alone and is, in fact, the fourth best-positioned state to expand wind power manufacturing jobs.

Another DOE study states that Michigan has the potential to be one of the top eight states for actually production of power from wind. In fact, Michigan’s offshore wind capacity is estimated by MSU’s Land Policy Institute at 322,000 MW, roughly 12 times Michigan’s peak electricity demand.
Knowing Our Strengths
Here is where understanding Michigan’s industrial strengths becomes so important. Unlike automobile manufacturing, which uses very sophisticated, advanced techniques, wind turbine manufacturing currently relies on technology from the 1960’s. Some serious modernization is called for.

In fact, at this very moment, wind turbine manufacturers across the globe are racing to be the first to modernize the production of their wind turbines’ components.

And that’s a race we can win: Our engineering expertise, modernized machining, robotics, and advanced materials production positions Michigan to meet the booming global demand not just for more, but for better wind turbines and wind turbine components.

This is not just a theory. Soon, a new Michigan company, Astraeus, will begin meeting part of that demand. The company is using newly designed, advanced tooling machinery to produce wind turbine hubs faster and more precisely than anyplace in the world.

And that is only a first step: New tooling machinery will be designed and fabricated in Michigan that will improve product quality and reduce product costs for a variety of next-generation turbine components.
Through exciting, yet-to-be-announced, new collaborations, Michigan will soon create the next generation of lightweight, carbon-fiber materials that will improve turbine quality and performance. The machines will become more powerful and efficient, cutting the cost of a kilowatt of electricity and catapulting Michigan to the forefront of innovation and design in wind energy systems.

Thanks to game-changing innovations by Michigan companies—in other words, thanks to our industrial heritage—our state will be the birthplace of the lightest, strongest, most efficient, most durable, and most cost-effective wind turbine components in the world.  

The re-tooling that is necessary to transition into this emerging industry is just now getting under way.  

In December of last year, the governor awarded $15 million in federal stimulus dollars to five Michigan companies diversifying into renewable energy advanced manufacturing. One of those companies, for example, is Saginaw-based Merrill Technologies Group, which received $3 million to build advanced-composite wind turbine blades and components, an investment that is expected to bring up to 125 jobs initially, with the potential for hundreds more.

This family-owned business has invested million of dollars to move into high tech advanced manufacturing areas such as high-tech robotic welding systems and flexible computer numerically controlled (CNC) machining centers that the energy industry, including solar and wind, needs. Merrill Technologies has already begun the launch of manufacturing 2.2 MW, gearless, next generation, state of the art wind turbine systems and energy components in Michigan.
Bright Future
Meanwhile, cloudy Michigan is moving ahead within the solar energy sector, too. New companies like Suniva and Globalwatt recently chose Michigan for their production facilities, joining Dow Corning Corporation, Hemlock Semiconductor Corporation, United Solar Ovonic LLC, and Evergreen Solar Inc. And Dow has announced that its new, game-changing, aesthetically pleasing Powerhouse shingle will be manufactured in Michigan.
The Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) estimates that Michigan will see $8.6 billion in new investment in battery, wind, and solar technology sectors in 2010. This new investment, obviously, portends huge further opportunities for Michigan. We really are just getting started tackling the “New Big Three.”

And, when it comes to wind power, which seems to be getting the lion’s share of concern about environmental impacts, the governor’s team recognizes the importance of being great stewards of Michigan’s outstanding, globally unique natural resources. We do understand that wind development, whether onshore or offshore, must advance in a way that complements our natural resource legacies and minimizes environmental impacts.

That is the charge of the Great Lakes Offshore Wind Council, which I chair.  We invite you to scrutinize our work.

Stanley “Skip” Pruss is the director of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor, and Economic Growth. A version of this essay first appeared on the Enviro-Mich list serve and was edited and used here by permission.

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