Renewable Energy Project Aims to Get Off Grid

When the blackout of 2003 began on August 14, more than 50 million people saw the limits of the U.S. power grid firsthand. The Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center hopes to show people a new direction that would avoid such widespread outages.

Muskegon, Michigan – November 5, 2003 [SolarAccess.com] Grand Valley State University’s Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center (MAREC) in Muskegon is a business incubator and research and development center for alternative and renewable energy technologies. It will also serve as a major demonstration project of those technologies. The Grand Rapids Business Journal named the project “Newsmaker of the Year” for 2002, citing its long-term benefits to the region. “The key to avoiding future blackouts is distributed generation,” said Dr. Imad Mahawili, executive director of MAREC. “Under the current system, people receive power from a few centralized power plants that transmit energy through lines. In a distributed generation system, the power is generated by fuel cells and other technologies for use nearby.” To that end, the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon will serve as an example of a distributed system using renewable energy sources. The facility was designed and is being built by Workstage, a real estate development and design building firm that is part of the team working to make buildings run on eco-friendly power. The center is equipped with a fuel cell that turns natural gas into electricity, provided by FuelCell Energy, of Danbury, Connecticut. It also has photovoltaic (PV) cells to capture the sun’s energy, and a nickel metal hydride battery to store excess energy from peak times for use later. Grand Valley State University claims it is the first building of its kind to use all of those technologies to become completely self-sufficient. Mahawili hopes that eventually, instead of using natural gas, the facility will be able to use biomass fuel converted from farm waste into methane to power the fuel cell. Once the facility is open in fall 2003, it will attract new energy technology businesses to the region and provide incubator space and support to start-up companies. It will also offer energy technology and economics seminars and training to area businesses. “There are several problems with the current grid,” Mahawili said. “Not only is it vulnerable to terrorist attack, but the plants supplying it use antiquated and inefficient technologies that rely on dwindling resources to operate.” Mahawili is a prolific inventor who holds 16 patents and has another five pending. Most recently, he served as founder, president and chief executive officer of Micro C Technologies and IsoComforter Company. Mahawili began his work as a chemical engineer in 1974, developing chemical feedstock from coal for the chemical industry as a consequence of the 1973 energy crisis. “I see the MAREC as a timely and critical vision for the development of economically viable technologies for alternative and renewable energy resources for our nation,” Mahawili said. MAREC is one of 11 SmartZones created by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation in 2001 as part of an effort to promote and attract high technology business development in the state. Grand Valley was the only university in the state to be granted two SmartZones — one in Grand Rapids and one in Muskegon. “Michigan is poised to be a leader in the application of fuel cell technologies in both stationary and mobile applications,” said Tim Schad, vice president for finance and administration at Grand Valley. “The Muskegon SmartZone is a joint venture between Michigan Economic Development Corporation, city of Muskegon and Grand Valley State University.”
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