Power Players

The winds of change are gaining momentum for greener technology, and several Michigan companies are energetic sources for ideas
Power Players
Illustration by Joseph Daniel Fiedler

The way John Oakley sees it, September 2006 will be looked back upon as a watershed in the alternative-energy market. Sure, we’ve had solar-cell technology for decades and windmills for centuries. Henry Ford generated his own power via the Rouge River waterfall outside Fairlane. But it was in September 2006, Oakley says, that the commodities markets started recording sharp increases in the price of corn and soybeans, once considered strictly food crops. And it was the farm fields’ potential as “the oil fields of the future” that did it.

To Oakley, CEO of Michigan BioDiesel, LLC, that was the moment when “the market finally realized what agriculture does, and that is capture solar energy, and put it in a form that is storable as energy. Just like solar energy captured 100,000 years ago made plants that were covered up, put under pressure, and that we’re now taking out of the ground (as coal, oil and natural gas).”

Michigan BioDiesel is a small plant in Van Buren County that converts everything from used restaurant frying oil to lard into fuel for trucks, generators, and heavy equipment. With an output not yet at 20 million gallons a year, it’s hardly a major player in the industry. But it’s a Michigan business seeking a place at one of the potentially richest tables of the 21st century, that of alternative energy. As concern about climate change dovetails with continuing instability in the Middle East, the push is on as never before to diversify the world’s energy sources, to make the country less reliant on fossil fuels and more clever about harnessing natural sources for cleaner, greener energy.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm made alternative energy a major plank in her economic-development plans for 21st-century Michigan, identifying four areas that can spur job growth and investment – energy efficiency, bio-fuels and bio-materials, solar and energy storage, and wind energy. Businesses in all four areas already dot the state, and their managers wax optimistic about the future. At the same time, the future is still cloudy, with the players still circling the table before choosing a place, everything from the volatile commodities market to public utilities to the automotive industry to the public itself. Everyone wants greener and cleaner. Few know how it’s going to happen.

One who knows better than most – or at least has the PowerPoint presentation to demonstrate it – is Dave Simon, president of Ilumisys, a startup subsidiary of Altair Engineering in Troy. Tucked in a corner of the larger company’s offices, Ilumisys’ five employees are working on developing LED light fixtures that take the form of fluorescent tubes. LEDs – light-emitting diodes – are coming into their own for general illumination.

Simon points out two charts that hang on the wall in the office, one showing lumens per watt, or light generated by energy consumed. That curve shows LEDs taking off like a rocket, far outstripping fluorescent lighting. The other chart – dollars per 1,000 lumens, or the cost of LED lighting – falling at the same sharp curve. In other words, LED lighting is getting better, brighter, and cheaper. LEDs last longer, resist vibration, are impervious to cold, and use less electricity. The United States alone replaces 500-600 million fluorescent tubes a year. Today, replacing one with an LED tube would cost about $140. By 2012, that should be down to $15, Simon says, for a light that could last a decade. The future is looking as bright as those gleaming dots inside the tube.

Not everyone is looking for the future under lights, however. At United Solar Ovonic in Auburn Hills, it’s happening under Michigan’s notoriously cloudy skies. The firm, a subsidiary of Energy Conversion Devices, Inc., makes a next-generation photovoltaic cell that is thinner, lighter, and more efficient than the rooftop ones that hippies and cheapskates have been using to run their water heaters since the 1970s. For now, the company specializes in large-footprint plans for factories and other big buildings, but looks to the residential market as an important part of their future.

It is “absolutely possible” for an average-size house to be equipped with solar cells that can serve all daytime electricity needs, and even store power for after-sundown use, says Nancy Bacon, senior vice president of Energy Conversion Devices, Inc. The company put such a roof on a Habitat for Humanity house in Traverse City during a gubernatorial conference last year. But for solar energy to really take off, Bacon says, it – and other alt-energy business – needs strong government support in this early-adoption phase.

“Incentives are critical to the market” Bacon says. Give homeowners and businesses tax credits for installing green-energy technology, and it kick-starts the market and its efficiencies, leading to a drop in prices and wider acceptance. Bacon points out that Germany – with “no more sunshine than we get in Michigan” – is the world leader in photovoltaic energy adaptation. That country has added 170,000 jobs related to solar power (“green-collar” Bacon calls them), and the United States could do the same, but only if government serves as the catalyst.

“The economics [of adding solar power] don’t pan out yet” she says. They will, but this is a critical time. “We could lose photovoltaic business like we lost electronics.”

Rich Vander Veen has his own issues with government, and that is to level the playing field with traditional utilities, so the wind farms he’s working to develop around the country can compete with coal-fired plants. As president of Mackinaw Power, he wants consumers to have a choice in where they buy their power. (They already do, to some extent. Consumers Energy has Green Power and DTE Energy has GreenCurrents, programs that let consumers choose green generators for a small additional fee.)

“The utilities have done a very good job using 20th-century technologies to get us where we are today,” Vander Veen says. “We want to take nothing away from those who have provided power. But that was the 20th century. We want people in Detroit now to take responsibility for what happens when they turn on the lights.”

What Vander Veen wants to happen is for at least some of the juice to be generated by the wind-driven turbines he’s trying to set up around the state. (Two of them, the company’s first, can be seen from I-75 as traffic approaches Mackinaw City.) The turbines need big setbacks but have small footprints; they’re ideal for a farmer to place in the middle of a field, with crops planted around them. One square mile – a section, in rural parlance – can host three or four of them, depending on zoning regulations. Huron County will eventually house the Noble Thumb Windpark, a 46-turbine generator approved late last year.

The wind park won’t generate nearly as much power as a coal-fired plant (69 megawatts, compared to DTE Energy’s 1,200-megawatt, coal-fired Belle River Power Plant), but it’s a step in the right direction, Vander Veen says.

“What we’ve been saying right along is, let’s further diversify [the energy] portfolio to make room for other sources. This generates clean electricity.”

Wind and sun and dazzling LEDs are clean and sexy, but old French-fry grease isn’t. Oakley, at Michigan BioDiesel, is probably the right person to remind us that whatever form an alternative-energy future takes, oil and other fossil fuels will still be a big part of it. A lot of clean energy is just cleaner, but it’s a start.

Adding 20-percent biodiesel to regular diesel fuel cuts carbon monoxide output by 83 percent, Oakley says, and particulates by 70 percent. And while most American cars don’t run on diesel, it’s the fuel that “does the work” he adds. “Trucks, construction, farm equipment.” It adds up.

Of course, “in Europe, it’s just the opposite,” Oakley says. There, diesel engines in passenger cars are far more common, and much of the biodiesel produced in the world ends up there. Along with those German solar panels, presumably. Maybe Gov. Granholm is on to something, after all.

Derringer is a Grosse Pointe Woods-based freelancer.