Sunday, March 22, 2009

Wind is at the back of West Michigan's fledgling renewable energy industry

Posted by Julia Bauer The Grand Rapids Press March 15, 2009 05:00AM

GRAND RAPIDS -- Solar power is hot. Wind turbines are terrific. But will renewable energy power up jobs as fast as Michigan's auto industry is switching them off?

"I don't think it's a complete solution, a silver bullet," Grand Rapids lawyer Scott Watson said of the region's growing energy industry.

"But it's one component of silver buckshot."

As alternative energy gathers momentum, area manufacturers are dipping their toes into a widening pool of opportunity.

What they're hoping to find is an incoming tide of customers and a boatload of tax breaks from state and federal coffers.

In the past six months, big wins blew in for Michigan manufacturers contemplating the energy industry: The state set a goal to tap 10 percent of its energy needs from alternate fuels by 2015.

Then last month, renewable energy projects got a boost in the federal stimulus package.

Most West Michigan manufacturers still are mulling the impact of those programs. But they're feeling optimistic.

"I think it certainly will help create a market for wind power, in particular, but also for renewables across the board," Watson said of the state and federal incentives.

"When you have a market for installing this, you have a market for manufacturing components."

No one expects renewable energy to single-handedly replace the automotive jobs lost in West Michigan. The hope is that it has the potential to supplement a company's bottom line.

"We're still going to build cars," said Rick Chapla, of the Grand Rapids economic development agency, The Right Place Inc. "But (with these new products) it's a more diversified base.

The state's car-making muscle will in fact be a leg up for these startups.

"Turbines are not terribly different from the supply chain associated with the auto industry," Chapla said. "It is a very big opportunity."

Two high-profile endeavors already are tapping wind and solar.

United Solar Ovonic, a division of Energy Conversion Devices in Auburn Hills, has two plants, each 280,000 square feet, in Greenville.

The maker of flexible solar film is running a healthy backlog and employs more than 400 in the Montcalm County town.

Although solar power is hot, the best bet for Michigan is wind-driven, said Watson. He has studied the tax breaks written into the federal stimulus package to nurture the nation's bid for energy independence.

"We've got great wind, particularly offshore," Watson said. "It's all about the resource.

"With the current technology, the resource (in Michigan) is better for wind technology than solar."

Wind power made big news last week.

On Wednesday, Spanish logistics firm Berge Logistica Energetica and Rockford Construction of Grand Rapids formed Rockford Berge.

It expects to find sites and build wind farms in Michigan and eventually around the Great Lakes.

The new venture plans to advise and manage projects with wind turbines from 150 to 350 feet tall, or higher.

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