Job Boom in Michigan, as Clean Energy Manufacturing Drives Economic Recovery

In an exclusive interview, former Gov. Granholm says Michigan has emerged from a 'decade of hell,' with jobs growth spurred by clean energy policies

GM's advanced automotive battery lab in Warren, Mich. Credit: GM Press Office

Share this article

Michigan’s “green” economy is growing fast, data shows, with thousands of clean energy jobs on the horizon as a new manufacturing base is being built on the expertise of its battered auto industry.

The change raises the prospect that Michigan might one day be a global hub for electric vehicles and advanced battery development, along with biofuel technologies, wind power parts and solar panels.

Former Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, whose second term ended in January, said in an interview that Michigan businesses are expected to create more than 89,000 clean energy jobs in the next decade from $14 billion of projects in the pipeline. (Includes correction, 4/07/2011)

The jobs will stem from 17 advanced battery companies and more than 25 solar, wind and biofuels companies that came to Michigan from August 2009 to December 2010, lured by state tax credits and federal stimulus grants, Granholm told SolveClimate News.

“Michigan has gone through the decade from hell,” Granholm said.

“The first eight years of the last decade were an example of job loss. But these last two years are an example of positive national and state policy working in tandem. What that can bring … is more investment, more research and development, and, most importantly, jobs.”

As governor, Granholm implemented aggressive clean energy policies and tax incentives to attract businesses, foster collaboration with universities and reverse massive job loss in the automotive and manufacturing sectors.

The state’s new governor, Rick Snyder, who campaigned as a “good green Republican,” is expected to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor.

Bottom Line: ‘Policy Matters’

For the first time in a decade, Michigan is projected to gain jobs and break its unprecedented string of rising unemployment, according to April 4 figures from the University of Michigan’s economics department.

This week, the department updated its earlier projections of 20,000 new positions for 2011. Economists now anticipate Michigan will add 64,600 jobs in 2011 and 61,500 more in 2012. The increase reflects “in part a bounce in manufacturing following the traumatic situation of the recent past,” they wrote. 

The state lost more than 900,000 jobs in the last decade due largely to the bankrupt auto industry, fleeting manufacturers and the national economic downturn, the economists said.

Today, however, Michigan ranks No. 1 in the nation for job creation improvement in a recent Gallup survey of state job markets.

“The bottom line is that policy matters,” Granholm said. “Without policy, this would not be happening.”

The former governor, who last month was appointed senior policy adviser to the non-profit Pew Charitable Trusts, said she hoped that Michigan’s story could be that of “the canary in the coal mine” for national lawmakers struggling to pass a federal clean energy standard.

“We are excited about the opportunities that clean energy jobs bring,” she said. “But we don’t want those jobs to go away because the federal government has failed to press on the accelerator.”

Granholm began her clean energy approach with the $2 billion 21st Century Jobs Fund, a ten-year program started in 2005 to encourage venture capital investments and R&D funding for 1,500 startups or existing firms looking to transfer skills from the old economy to the cleantech industry.

Two years later, Granholm signed the state’s renewable portfolio standard requiring utilities to get 10 percent of their electricity supply from clean energy generation, renewable energy credits and energy efficiency programs by 2015.

Since then, a vast array of clean energy programs have popped up, including: tax-exempt zones for R&D and manufacturing facilities; business accelerators for cleantech startups; clean energy training grants; and business tax credits for alternative energy companies.

Michigan Having a ‘Cluster Effect’

Howard Learner, director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), said that Michigan is beginning to have a “cluster effect” among renewable energy and electric vehicle developers.

“Michigan is becoming a center for clean energy R&D, and that tends to feed itself. More development attracts more equipment manufacturers and so on,” he told SolveClimate News.

A central part of Michigan’s cleantech focus has been building on what the state already knows best — automobiles.

In 2009 and 2010, twelve projects in the state received a share of $1.35 billion in federal stimulus funds from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to boost advanced battery and electric vehicle manufacturing and research and development.

General Motors received a portion of those grants to build its Chevy Volt battery pack manufacturing test facility — the largest in the world — at its headquarters in Warren.

The DOE is also funding half of a $25 million Clean Vehicles Consortium run through the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center to develop technologies on vehicle electrification.

The Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute at the University of Michigan is leading the five-year-long consortium, which includes Ohio State University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Oak Ridge National Laboratories, General Motors, Ford, Toyota and Chrysler, among others.

The Ann Arbor-based university spent $1.14 billion on overall R&D spending last year, the most of any public university or college in the nation, according to the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Dennis Assanis, who directs the Phoenix institute, said that in a few years, people will be asking, “Which came first, the University of Michigan or the electric vehicle?”

Leader in Clean Energy Patents

The same could be true for the state. Michigan leads the country in U.S. clean energy patents per state, holding 433 patents — or 23 percent of the national total — primarily in fuel cells and hybrid or plug-in electric vehicle manufacturing, the Clean Energy Patent Growth Index reported last month.

Assanis added that the state’s century-old manufacturing tradition is undergoing a transformation as auto parts and machinery make way for wind turbines and solar panels.

“We are a leader in manufacturing in the U.S. and world, and now there is a great opportunity ahead of us to address the design, R&D and manufacturing of these new systems that are going to be needed for clean energy,” he said.

The state houses nearly 200 solar and wind supply chain companies that employ more than 6,300 people and 4,000 people, respectively, according to an ELPC report released on March 22.

Nearly all of the state’s solar industry jobs are with Dow Corning or Hemlock Semiconductor Group. Combined, the firms have invested $3 billion in Michigan over the past five years and created thousands of new construction jobs and permanent positions.

Hemlock is the world’s largest manufacturer of the polycrystalline silicon used to make solar cells and modules for panels. Dow Corning, a majority owner of Hemlock, employs some 4,500 people to develop silicon atom technology and silicone solar panel materials, as well as raw materials for thin-film solar cells.

Hemlock alone received more than half of the $242 million in advanced energy tax credits awarded to a dozen solar, wind and battery companies in Michigan through federal stimulus dollars.

“Our goal is to help alternative energy become an economically viable, sustainable energy option globally,” said Jarrod Erpelding, a Dow Corning spokesperson, during a conference call last month on the ELPC report.

“Michigan is well positioned to play a major role in alternative energy with the assets and expertise already residing here.”

Offshore Wind Farms Next?

In wind energy, the Phoenix energy institute is hoping to drive future investments in offshore wind farms in the surrounding Great Lakes.

Together with the Grand Valley State University’s Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center (MAREC), the institute will begin a $1.4 million project monitoring a buoyed research platform this fall to determine sites with the strongest wind energy resource. (Includes correction, 4/06/2011)

“We want to develop not just ideas but products and commercialization. We see energy as closely coupled with innovation and jobs creation,” Assanis said.

He added: “For the state, it is going to be crucial to create new jobs not only for blue collar [workers], but also for the talent that is graduating from the University of Michigan and other schools in the state, which is going to go into advanced R&D efforts associated with this new industry.”

Corrections: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute and the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center are currently monitoring a $2 billion buoyed research platform to determine which sites are suitable for offshore wind farms. The actual cost of the entire project, including the research platform, is $1.4 million, and the monitoring will begin in the fall of 2011.

Further, the article misstated the number of clean energy jobs Michigan businesses are expected to create in the next decade. In that period 89,000 new jobs are expected to be created, not 150,000 jobs.