Michigan: A leader in alternative energy, part one

State hopes to replace possible lost jobs with jobs in alternative and distributive energy

Michigan is determined to play a leading role in the global transition to an alternative (nontraditional such as photovoltaics) and distributive (electricity produced on site) energy economy.

With dwindling fossil fuels and rising levels of pollution, internal combustion engines could lose their prominent place in our transportation system. If new energy sources power our transportation fleets, Michigan stands to lose 200,000 jobs related to internal combustion engines and another 200,000 jobs related to the transmission systems now used in vehicles.

By designing and testing new energy systems now, Michigan hopes to replace lost jobs with jobs in alternative and distributive energy.

Recently, representatives of the Illinois Hydrogen Coalition, the Illinois Renewable Energy Association and Rock Valley College met with representatives from Next Energy, DTE Energy Technologies, Plug Power, United Solar Ovonics and Texaco Ovonic Hydrogen Systems to learn of their efforts.

Next Energy, a nonprofit entity, was established to position Michigan as the world leader in alternative and distributive energy technology research, development, education and manufacturing for both stationary and mobile applications. It will occupy a new 40,000- square foot building within Wayne State University’s Technology Park in Detroit.

The facility will incorporate the latest technologies into the building’s electrical, heating and cooling systems. Fuel cells, advanced combustion engines, Stirling engines, advanced solar systems and photovoltaics will be united into a mini-grid. The grid could also include rooftop wind generators designed by Dr. Bil Becker which may be produced in Rockford.

The Next Energy building will be surrounded by a 700-acre Alternative Energy Renaissance Zone, which offers tax exemptions to companies that locate there and perform alternative energy research, development and manufacturing.

DTE Energy Technologies Inc., formed in 1998, is an unregulated, non-utility subsidiary of DTE Energy of Detroit. The firm specializes in providing distributed generation, products and services for residential, commercial and industrial customers.

Distributed generation can function independently or in combination with power produced in a large centralized plant and shipped over power lines to where it will be used. It can be produced by a variety of generating equipment such as fuel cells, mini-turbines, Stirling engines and internal combustion engines. Output ranges from 5kW, sufficient to provide household backup power, to more than 10 MW for industrial applications.

Distributed power is reliable, cost effective and without voltage spikes, which can damage sensitive computer and communications equipment. It can reduce grid overloading and help prevent blackouts. Strategically placed distributive generators could increase grid capacity by at least 20 percent.

Plug Power, in which DTE Energy Technologies holds a 25 percent interest, is a fuel cell company. The fuel cell is based on a proton exchange membrane at the anode, which allows the hydrogen ion to pass through but sends the hydrogen electron through an external circuit, producing usable electricity. At the cathode, the hydrogen ion and electron reunite and combine with oxygen, forming water and heat.

Plug Power products are now being field tested in a variety of situations to establish their reliability and durability under working conditions prior to mass production. The units are leased and returned for detailed inspection after a few years of service and replaced with upgraded units.

In most applications, hydrogen to power fuel cells is stripped from natural gas or liquid propane. Economic competitiveness of the units is affected by the availability of the fuels and their cost. In one Plug Power design, the 5 kW fuel cell is powered by bottled hydrogen.

The most common outdoor application of Plug Power’s 5 kW fuel cell is to replace battery backup power for the telecommunications industry. Fuel cells have numerous applications throughout the world.

More next week.

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