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Archive for November, 2012

By John Q. Horn

You can’t help but notice them, as they (not so) slowly sprout up around the state; these enormous, stark white windmills. Not traditional windmills evocative of a Dutch postcard, rather, these are sleek, aerodynamic wind turbines, and they are progressively turning Michigan’s agricultural land into wheelhouses for clean, renewable energy.

Wind farms have been built in the Thumb, mid-Michigan and the western side of the state–and the Upper Peninsula will soon be home to its first wind facility. Heritage Sustainable Energy of Traverse City is erecting upward of 13 turbines in Delta County on the Garden Peninsula. Garden Wind Farm should be completed before year’s end. Each turbine is expected to generate 5,000 megawatt hours of energy per year. One turbine was completed at the end of 2011.

According to Delta Township Supervisor Morgan Tatrow, the project is still on pace for 2012 completion.

“It’s very much on track,” he says.

He said 13 concrete bases have been installed. From early to mid-June, 125 to 130 semi trucks are expected to roll into Delta Township with the remaining turbines and their components. With newfound usage for previously unused or under-used agricultural property, the creation of new jobs, new tax base revenue and a continued renewable energy source, Tatrow said the ripple effect on the Upper Peninsula community is welcomed.

“I do see it as a good thing,” Tatrow says. “Seventy-five local workers are working, which is a boost. This has a big impact on the whole county and it could for the rest of the Upper Peninsula as well.”

In mid-Michigan’s Gratiot County, near Breckenridge, 133 wind turbines went live at the end of 2011. Built by General Electric, these turbines are 460 feet high and are expected to generate more than 200 megawatts of electricity for 50,000-plus homes for nearly 20 years. An average two-story home uses about 50 kilowatts per day, or 1,500 kilowatts per month.

Of the 133 turbines, 58 are owned by DTE Energy; the rest are owned by Chicago-based Invenergy, which, seven years ago, first explored the area, asking residents if they would be willing to lease land. So, why Gratiot County?

“We have good wind,” says Donald Schurr, president of Greater Gratiot Development. “It’s not as good as the Thumb or lakefront communities, but at the 10,000-foot level, there is a little sweet spot and we are in that spot.”
The process works like this:

  • A privately held company studies wind activity in a specific region. If viable, it approaches local land owners about leasing their land to house the turbines. They work with residents and local governments to move forward.
  • Once approved by land owners and local officials, a land bank is created, crews are brought in and turbines are erected.
  • The wind turns the turbines’ blades, creating electrical energy stored on a grid. Part of that energy is sold to power companies like DTE. The rest is housed and distributed.

Successful wind farms need a place to collect the energy and tie into a power grid. Gratiot County has that, thanks to the presence of a closed refinery in the community and a former Tier-1 automotive factory.

“The lines are still around,” says Schurr.

Things appear to be working out well. Schurr says Des Moines-based wind farm developer Excelon has already started Phase I this summer of a second wind farm in Gratiot County. Beebe Community Wind Farm LLC is expected to be operational by the end of 2012, with 38 new turbines generating energy just south of Gratiot Wind.

Construction in the county created 150 jobs for the first farm in Gratiot County. About 15 employees will work full-time in engineering and maintenance on the property.

Schurr said 250 families were involved in leasing 35,000 acres, with property owners getting $70-$80 per acre.

And while it appears to be a win-win-win with the wind, not everybody is overjoyed.

In the U.P.’s Garden Peninsula, residents have made their opposition clear. Some don’t want to have to look at the towers. Others are concerned about the safety of migratory birds like bald and golden eagles (and some bats), who could face a shocking end while negotiating these huge, very strong fan blades in their flight corridors.

Opponents have peppered local officials and wind farm developers with questions and concerns.

Michigan’s Fish and Wildlife Service has been aggressive in working with companies like Heritage to establish best practices. FWS Field Supervisor Scott Hicks says the Garden Peninsula development is a proving ground to see how disruptive–if at all–construction projects like this will be to aviary preservation.

According to Hicks, FWS has conducted dozens of studies on flight paths, seasonal travel patterns and other data to identify and forecast if birds such as bald and golden eagles, as well as bats, will be displaced or in danger due to the presence of the turbines. He says Heritage has been cooperative with compliancy requirements on the company’s end as well. “I think they are sincere in their efforts in working with us,” Hicks says. “Developers can avoid migratory corridors and other areas that may have higher risks for wildlife by working with us and the DNR early in the process. There’s no question that working together we can significantly reduce wildlife impacts.”

Photos by Avram Golden

John Horn has been a journalist for nearly 20 years, including 12 as a freelance writer. He has covered city government, crime, real estate and sports for both community newspapers and large, metro dailies. He has written extensively about dining and drinking in and around Detroit for numerous clients, locally, nationally and internationally. He loves the city. He loves up north. He loves his wife Kerry, their toddler daughter Maeve, their 80-pound Labradoodle, Lamont, and the Detroit Tigers. In that order.

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It’s one thing for an organization to fill a niche that leads to success and growth. That’s a goal of most companies.

It’s an entirely different dynamic to fill said niche while simultaneously helping other companies grow, especially when your wheelhouse is stocked with a dream team of scientists, researchers and technology experts.

And amid high-end, industry-changing research and development collaborations, the Michigan Molecular Institute has gone one further, doing this little thing called sustaining a community. They do that by being the rigid information technology backbone to numerous mid-Michigan nonprofit health and human services agencies. These are the folks that, among so many other things, help keep food in the fridge and hot water running in homes of countless families who need a hand up.

This, coming from a Midland-based research powerhouse that takes scientific- and technology-based exploration to unprecedented heights.

MMI is a nonprofit contract research organization that uses state and federal funding and grants to provide research and development that crosses multiple platforms for companies big and small. It also yields a wide array of successful results, and has been doing so for more than 40 years.

The institute has a hand in several enterprises, from fulfilling an organization’s analytical needs, to designing and manufacturing specialty dendrimers and polymers. Dendrimers are synthetically engineered molecules that can be developed into practically applied products. They also serve as the motors in nanotechnology machines that can eventually deliver everything from insulin within a human body to battery power. Polymers are large molecules composed of many smaller ones.

 

MMI operates on an unusual model: It uses a third party to get in touch with potential collaborative partners, and itself is a nonprofit. Their partner could be a company in Texas looking to elevate the performance of a sealant they’ve been making for 20 years; it could be a start-up in Bangkok that is inventing a new line of state-of-the-art medical equipment. MMI’s role is to help bring those cutting-edge technologies together and bring practical products to market.

Not your average chief research officer, Dr. Steven Keinath is a senior research scientist program manager at MMI. He says MMI’s layered skills set is the mechanism that has enabled the company to grow into a diverse tech-based research organization.

“We really are more than just a research organization,” Keinath said. “Over the years, we have spun off for-profits that enter into joint ventures.”

One of those for-profits–Dendritech, Inc.–became MMI’s entry into the commercial production of the above-mentioned dendrimers. Launched in 1992, when nobody else was doing it, MMI found success swiftly.

“MMI was probably one of the first commercial houses to do it,” Keinath says. “Now, Dendritech is the largest commercial producer of dendrimers.”

Keinath says they saw this first-hand in a past National Science Foundation program. There, MMI officials met a company needing a coating material with an anti-fouling agent that would stop organisms from building up on surfaces. It was a coating for boat hulls to keep zebra mussels from attaching.

“MMI accomplished this by using a dendritic form,” Keinath says. “They refrain from attaching. It’s a nice way of carrying a chemical repellant agent that isn’t released.”

 

Creating a from-scratch chemical application that leaves no negative footprint. Imagine that.

And as good as MMI is at generating leading-edge scientific developments, it applies that same drive to secure monies to keep this high-tech party going. The boat hull research and development was carried through with Small Business Innovation Research grants and funds from the National Science Foundation. With help from the state’s energy department, MMI became schooled in pursuing federal grants to research, develop and commercialize new breakthrough technology innovations, says Mark Clevey, who works in technical assistance at the Bureau of Energy Systems.

“They excelled in these programs and we were able to secure several million in research dollars as well as several million in private-sector investments to commercialize the successful research results,” Clevey says. “MMI is a fine example of how government invests in technological advancement in the U.S.”

Another for-profit spin-off of MMI is Oxazogen, launched in 1996 and established to chase federal monies. Practical applications of these pursuits include batteries and fuel cell research and development. Another MMI group is Impact Analytical. That organization provides top-shelf analytical and chemical services to companies working in pharmaceuticals and plastics, among others.

However, some of its most rewarding and impactful work could come from its subsidiary, the Midland Information Technology Consortium. Launched in 2000 and sponsored by the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation, MITCON provides comprehensive IT services and support to a large group of other area nonprofits. These clients are, for the most part, United Way-funded agencies. That’s 37 nonprofits, delivering critical health and human services to people in the state who can’t otherwise do it for themselves.

It takes a lot for these organizations to provide the assistance they do. It’s a sometimes thankless job with tricky funding and grueling behind-the-scenes work that often goes unnoticed. The last thing they need are rickety computers and low-grade servers to put their efforts in the weeds. MITCON takes care of all of it, from hardware to software, to everything in between.

“A lot of these nonprofits have similar IT needs,” Keinath says.

MMI has the tech research chops to define and change the game at the same time. By using the same drive and focus, mid-Michigan can expect the institute and its related companies to keep breaking new ground and taking bright ideas from conceptualization to reality–and supporting the community all along the way.

John Horn is a suburban Detroit-based freelance journalist.

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