The Engineering Society of Detroit provided a wide-ranging look at the challenges and opportunities in renewable energy for Michigan and the globe overall at its annual Alternative Energy Conference Wednesday at the Hyatt Regency Dearborn.

Steve Kurmas, president and COO of DTE Energy, got the group’s attention early in the opening keynote with an eye-catching figure — $2 billion. That’s how much DTE is investing in renewables in the next few years. Kurmas said the utility is working with the governor’s office and area economic development agencies to keep as much of that money as possible in Michigan.

Kurmas said DTE’s renewable portfolio has expanded from 1 percent to 4 percent in the last two years, and is en route to the state’s mandate of 10 percent by 2015.

The utility is also getting into smart grid technologies for its 3.4 million customers, installing 30,000 smart meters so far on Grosse Ile, Harsen’s Island, Bloomfield Township and Milford, eliminating manual meter reading and enabling automatic detection of outages.

Kurmas said DTE’s 11,500 megawatt generating capacity has ample room for plug-in electric vehicles — provided they’re charged at night, when usage falls to 5,000 megawatts or below. He said the utility had established a flat $40-a-month fee for unlimited residential EV charging.

He said the utility’s “corporate goal of leaving our chidlren with a cleaner, greener world” also includes carbon-free nuclear energy, with applications on file for a second nuclear power plant at the Fermi location on Lake Erie.

“We believe nuclear makes sense alongside investments in energy efficiency and renewable,” Kurmas said.

Elsewhere in renewables, DTE operates 25 landfill gas plants in 14 states, operates DTE Energy Ventures that invests in fuel cells, advanced batteries, renewables, energy efficiency and energy storage, sponsors the Clean Energy Prize entrepreneurial competition with the University of Michigan and operates the DTE Hydrogen Technology Park, a solar-powered hydrogen generating plant in Southfield.

In response to an audience question about offshore wind development in the Great Lakes, Kurmas said the chief obstacle was the fact that Michigan still has so many onshore opportunities to develop at far lower cost.

“At some point, however, when onshore resources are fully developed, we need to look offshore, and we need to do that in an evnrionmentally responsive manner that includes input from the local community,” Kurmas said.

A public-policy panel followed Kurmas. Mark Clevey, the new manager for consumer education and renewable energy at the Michigan Bureau of Energy Systems, noted that the incoming Snyder administration is focused on government emergencies — and renewable energy in Michigan is not one of them. But he said the state’s efforts to boost renewables will continue. “There are very intelligent, good people working on wind energy and energy efficiency and solar energy for the state, an they’re not going to stop,” Clevey said. “The green economy is already here. We’ve got lots of sprouts and shoots. Our job is to water and nurture them.”

Clevey noted that Michigan spends $24 billion a year to import energy — 100 percent of its coal, 99 percent of its oil and 70 percent of its natural gas — so an opportunity to create Michigan jobs with renewables is certainly there.

Rick Manczak, an attorney with Butzel Long, reported on his attendance at last year’s United Nations climate change conference in Cancun. He said the United States at the event committed to a 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels — other nations pledged 25 to 41 percent. He called the Cancun conference a “modest success … progress without a binding deal.” And he said the U.S. is now running a distant third in cleantech investment behind China and the European Union.

Sally Talberg, senior consultant at Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants in Lansing, offered details on two programs aimed at weatherizing and energy efficiency improvements at Michigan homes and businesses — Michigan Saves and BetterBuildings for Michigan.

Michgian Saves Inc. is a nonprofit set up under a state contract by PSC that aims to make $68 million in low-interest loans available to homeowners for energy projects — everything from insulation to solar panels.

BetterBuildings for Michigan is conducting “neighborhood sweeps” in identified neighborhoods to improve energy efficiency of thousands fof homes and businesses. More at

A wind energy panel covered Michigan’s participation in this part of renewable energy. Grady Nance, manager of renewable energy development and technology at DTE Energy, said the utility’s plans for wind energy will produce hundreds of millions of dollars in local investment — as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in personal property taxes to local units of government.

He said DTE-sponsored wind energy farms are springing up across the Michigan Thumb — one of the top wind energy prospect areas identified by a state study — as well as Gratiot County in mid-Michigan.

Deborah Dansby, the former COO of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. who is now director of business development at Astraeus Wind Energy, described her new company’s Michigan startup success story. Astraeus is working on bringing advanced materials like carbon fiber and advanced automated manufacturing techniques to wind turbine blade manufacturing, replacing costly, inefficient and unreliable techniques like hand lay-up. She said this technology would spin off into other areas of manufacturing. The technological effort has received $6 million from the state Centers of Energy Excellence program and will be creating jobs at now-vacant factories in Eaton Rapids and Port Huron.

Steve Bakkal, wind sector development director at the MEDC, pointed out that Michigan has 16,650 megawatts of wind generation potential onshore alone, and is logistically easily suited to supply the Midwest and Ontario. But its real advantage in wind energy development, he said, is engineering and product development expertise, along with excess manufacturing capacity. More than 100 companies are active today in Michigan’s wind supply chain, Bakkal said.

Robert Cawly, vice president of operations and technology at Barrie, Vt.-based Northern Power Systems, said his company has selected Michigan as a manufacturing center for a variety of reasons, including an ideal place to test the company’s advanced technologies of wind turbines without gear boxes. He also said Michigan has better utility grid connections than other areas eyed for wind development, including the Great Plains.

Cawly said Northern Power’s turbines are being manufactured in Saginaw in cooperation with Energetx Composites and Merrill Engineering and Integration — and another 75-plus Michigan supply chain partners. The effort has already created more than 50 jobs in Saginaw, Cawly said.

Cawly said Michigan combines a great wind profile, the nation’s second longest coastline, committed players, an ability to integrate a supply chain rapidly, a skilled labor force, logistics, infrastructure, and a strong public policy commitment to wind energy.

An afternoon keynote from Mary Lou Benecke, vice president of public affairs and corporate communication at Midland-based Dow Corning Corp., covered how Dow Corning joint venture Hemlock Semiconductor has grown in Michigan.

Hemlock is the world’s largest producer of polycrystalline silicon — the chemical guts of both electronics and solar power. She said Hemlock is “rediscovering the fun and invention in manufacturing, and we really believe we’re changing the world.”

Hemlock originally wasn’t looking to expand in Michigan, but Benecke said a creative and bipartisan response by the area’s legislators and economic development officials changed that, and Michigan got a $1 billion expansion originally slated for Tennessee.

Steven Milunovich, managing director at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, presented “A View of the Cleantech Revolution from Wall Street.” He described the industry as “an exciting opportunity, but it’s very early… it’s about where the computer industry was in the early 1960s, maybe even the late 1950s.”

He called cleantech the “sixth revolution,” based on a theory of cyclical  technology revolutions, the fifth of which was the IT revolution that started with the Intel microprocessor in 1971.

He said solar energy is in some areas approching price parity with grid power, but other areas of renewables still require subsidy.

A solar energy panel discussion covered this important part of renewables.

Roland Kibler, director of generation, storage and fuels programs at NextEnergy, noted that a chart of kilowatt hours per square meter per day favors the Southwest as America’s solar energy capital — but that Michigan still has two-thirds of the power potential that Arizona has, and a whole lot more than Germany, which has moved big into solar power.

Kibler said solar power is headed toward grid parity sometime between 2012 and 2016. But he said the U.S. is lagging behind countries like China and Taiwan in global photovoltaic manufacturing capacity. “I think good policy would help jumpstart the industry, so it can compete on its own, and then the policy should go away,” Kibler said. “But this is a policy issue as far as I can see.”

Ray Zoia, marketing program manager at DTE Energy, covered the

Detroit utility’s solar energy efforts. DTE will spend about $25 million to subsidize customers that will install solar on their own property, roughly five megawatts. The customers will get 11 cents per kilwatt hour monthly credit for their trouble. Detroit Edison will add another 15 megawatts of its own solar plant at customer sites.

Chris Bala, vice president of sales in the central region at Auburn Hills-based United Solar Ovonic, covered his company’s 25-year history as a developer and manufacturer of thin-film solar panels.

“Unfortunately… there’s not a lot of solar being built in Michigan or even elsewhere in the U.S.,” Bala said. “Most of the solar PV that’s being put into the market is in Europe and some other emerging markets… The vast majority of our product has gone overseas, but it’s time for us to focus on our home market, in the U.S. and Michigan, to make solar a more relevant piece of the renewable mix.”

Bala said the 16-gigawatt global solar energy installation in 2010 went 70 percent to western Euorpe, 9 per cent to North America and 22 percent to the rest of the world. But growth is coming soon. Of the estimated 18 gigawatt market in 2012, it’s predicted that 37 percent will go to western Europe, 28 percent to North America and 35 percent to the rest of the world.

He said  Uni-Solar’s lightweight, thin laminate solar panels works well on complex architectural installations. They’re built with chemical vapor deposition, a half-micron thick on a very thin stainless steel substrate.


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