Thursday, March 5, 2009

Changing Gears

Today (March 5, 2009) there was a great conference at the U of Michigan, "Changing Gears: The Future of Low Carbon Manufacturing in the Midwest," hosted jointly by The Climate Group and the Royal Danish Embassy to the United States.

A number of environmentally active companies were represented on panel discussions, some well known, others more obscure. Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, and Danish Minister of Climate and Energy Connie Hedegaard, came to speak and sign a Memorandum of Understanding to cooperate on "green" energy development.

Don't worry - this won't be a report. There is a press release and quite a few journalists were present. As a good blog should, this will just give my impressions.

I should say first that I registered myself as an Ypsilanti Township Planning Commissioner, rather than as a member of Wake Up Washtenaw, but I reacted as both. Ypsi Township ("Y-Town" as we're now calling ourselves) is very powerfully impacted by the decline of the auto industry, since our two largest property owners are General Motors and Ford. So it is very much in our interest to know what the future of Michigan manufacturing holds in store. But sustainable development and Wake Up Washtenaw are central to my interests, so that's what most of my reaction stems from.

So, why Denmark?

Denmark is a key player in the green energy field for historical reasons. In the 1970s, they suffered disproportionately from the oil crises. Ninety-seven percent of their energy needs at the time were being met by imported oil.They were forced to reduce demand, develop efficient equipment, and turn to renewable sources. (OK, they also drilled for oil offshore and struck it rich in the North Sea a few years later.) They taxed energy heavily, and even prohibited running private cars on Sundays for a while. But their taxes and incentives pushed the entire economy into "green" mode. In the last 35 years, they have:

  • Kept national energy consumption at 1970s levels;
  • Expanded their export economy by a factor of three;
  • Achieved 2.2% unemployment;
  • And maintained one of the highest standards of living in the world (Ninth on The Economist's Quality-of-life Index for 2005, where the United States ranked thirteenth).

The Danes attribute their success to "green industry", including such diverse products as high-efficiency pumps, enzymes for biomass energy, and wind turbines (the well-known Vestas brand).

What was missing?

A critical aspects of anything is what's missing from it, so I want to start by noting some things that weren't there.

  • General Motors and Chrysler weren't represented. (Ford was.)
  • If public transportation was mentioned at all, it must have been when I was in the Men's room.
  • The term "vehicle" was specifically thrown out window by one panelist in favor of the word "car", because "that's what people drive".
  • Hydrogen fuel cells were mentioned only twice, though I believe they're been written off because of their low energy density compared with lithium-ion batteries.
  • Standards bodies were not mentioned; instead, the need for standardizing batteries and other components was discussed as a choice between government-legislated technology standards and ... well, non-standard products, I guess. International standards bodies like ISO, SAE, and IEEE are the obvious groups to bring standards to electric vehicle technology, not governments.
  • Realism about Michigan's manufacturing acumen was in short supply. Manufacturing was touted by a number of speakers as one of Michigan's true strengths, yet Michigan has been surpassed in quality standards by the Japanese, in agility by China, and in the number of engineers coming out of universities by both India and China.

What stood out?

First and foremost, the willingness of US companies and governments to look beyond our borders for answers. Rejecting anything "Not Invented Here" is one of the most harmful traits of Americans in the last few decades. Of course, Denmark has only 5.5 million people compared with Michigan's 9.5 million, and lots of Americans look to Denmark as a country of (near-)ancestral origin, so the Danes are perhaps seen as less of a threat. As Governor Granholm said, one of the many similarities between Michigan and Denmark is that we're both run by Scandinavians - Granholm's ancestors were from Sweden. Still, it's a very positive step. We need to be informed about successful practices from around the world, and add our own Michigan spin if need be.

An emphasis on making what we already make well, but in a "green" way, and on replacing things we don't make so much anymore with "green" products. The auto industry is the most obvious referent, but interestingly, the appliance industry is big in Michigan (especially in the west), and has served as a model. Whirlpool, the largest maker of home appliances around the world (or so they say) is headquartered in Benton Harbor. Ten years ago they set goals to reduce their corporate carbon footprint, including not only administration and manufacturing, but also the lifetime carbon ecology of their products. They've done this very well. Currently, they're demonstrating a clothes drier that senses the load on the electrical grid, and can turn off the 5,500 watt heating element if the grid is experiencing heavy demand. (Next step: how to put in place economic incentives for consumers to use such a drier.)

"Taking off into the wind" - the need to use the current economic downturn as an opportunity to restructure, and get away from "business as usual". (At the same time, the emphasis on doing what we already do, only better, is really "business as usual".)

Quote of the day, by one of the Danish non-governmental participants, from Winston Churchill: "You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they're tried everything else."

Three energetic women. There were men with energy at the conference, but the three people who stood out for their sharp intelligence, enthusiasm, and positive energy were Ann Marie Sastry, Connie Hedegaard, and Jennifer Granholm.

  • Ann Marie Sastry is Professor of Mechanical, Biomedical and Materials Science and Engineering, and Director of the Energy Systems Engineering Program (which she founded in 2007) at University of Michigan. She's also founder and CEO of the research spin-off company Sakti3 . She has directed students in developing new, more efficient lithium-ion battery technologies, and founded Sakti3 along with some of her colleagues in order to "start doing it". The list of her activities and honors is awe-inspiring, and she speaks with incisive clarity. We're lucky to have her in Michigan.
  • Connie Hedegaard is the Danish Minister of Climate and Environment. She speaks with a wonderful combination of precision and enthusiasm - a rare combination - and she has command of an impressive array of facts. Her enthusiasm and energy are contagious.
  • Jennifer Granholm, of course, is Governor of Michigan. I'd never heard her speak in person before. Although her style is quite different from Obama's, she has the same ability to make her audience believe that our desired future is within our grasp, if we'll only put our backs into it. She's mainly on the right track (well, the right road, since she's a great automobile booster). She pushes for diversification of industry, energy efficiency, and green jobs. "It's all about jobs!" Unfortunately, that often comes down to short-term solutions which are, incidentally, good for the environment. I'd prefer to hear her say, "It's all for our children and grandchildren." But her energy and enthusiasm are more than contagious. They're compelling. I'm reminded of how pumped up I felt the first time I saw the grand finale of the original Star Wars movie, with John Williams' triumphal march. Made me want to get out there and conquer a few worlds.

Finally, thank you to the sponsors, The Climate Group and The Royal Danish Embassy for an informative, inspiring, FREE conference!

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