By John Phipps
August 26, 2009, 9:00AM
One good thing about hard times is they force innovation. And here's an invigorating example: West Michigan is rigging itself to set sail in the emerging wind energy industry.
Grand Rapids Community College, encouraged by The Right Place economic development group, has succeeded in getting eight West Michigan community colleges -- from Traverse City all the way down to Kalamazoo, Saint Joseph and Battle Creek -- to cooperate on one big idea to promote wind energy in West Michigan. Grand Valley State and Ferris State universities are also on board.
So are key local industries working in wind, such as Rockford Berge, Cascade Engineering, Applied Technology Systems, the Holland Board of Public Works and others.
The big idea: A $16 million wind energy training and testing center supported by all 10 schools.
The center would train skilled workers to service the turbines and wind farms that are popping up like summer sunflowers throughout the country. The centerpiece of the training school could be a 300-foot tower, the kind a major power supplier would operate. But it likely would have a variety of other wind towers, smaller home wind machines, and solar and other renewable energy training equipment. Testing labs also are planned, with an eye toward having the wind industry pay to use them.
This groundbreaking college collaborative should be considered a statewide example for aggressively recruiting a new industry, while cutting costs by sharing resources. Lawmakers, policy makers and the governor's office should support the effort as the schools finalize planning and begin applying for federal and state green-energy grants to make it happen. Alternative energy is a good way to diversify our economy. If new, well-paying jobs are going to be created, the state must be committed to supporting bold endeavors like this testing and training facility.
Right Place President Birgit Klohs estimates there's a window of just a few years for West Michigan to prove itself a player in the wind market. She is working with industries to position the region, following the road map in a 52-page report she released 18 months ago. The report calls wind West Michigan's best opportunity for growth over the next five years.
The community college training center could become nationally known, she said.
"My long-term dream is that if someone in Montana says 'wind energy technicians' they say 'Oh, those people in West Michigan -- they have the best programs.'â€‰"
The center will need a 50-acre site to call home, The most promising area, organizers say, is in or around northern Allegan County, which is one of the best regions in Michigan for harvesting wind energy, according to a study by Michigan State University's Land Policy Institute. The policy report also concluded Allegan County, which has a unique proximity to urban areas, eventually could support up to 300 turbines as wind farm demand grows. The Traverse City and Thumb regions also are flagged as top on-shore wind-capturing locations.
Planning for wind turbines won't be a breeze. There is hard work ahead, and policy makers should prepare to address environmental, community and business issues thoroughly and openly.
But the wind industry is truly taking flight. Nationally, its jobs now total 85,000, already outnumbering coal mining jobs, according to a new American Wind Energy Association study. Within just a few years, Michigan may have 1,000 wind turbines turning to meet demands of the state's renewable portfolio standards, rules that require electric suppliers by 2015 to get 10 percent of electricity from renewable sources.
Wind is a rare example in these tough times of where West Michigan's assets seem to align perfectly with an up-and-coming industry. The Great Lakes are among the nation's best wind factories. The region is already a proven leader in making things, with a strong work force and infrastructure.
We are, for once, in the right place, Klohs said. In this economy, that's a blast of fresh air.