Green it up

Michigan's former green czar talks energy and economy

Jan 26, 2011 at 12:00 am

To Stanley "Skip" Pruss, the coming green energy transformation will cause a bigger societal upheaval than personal computers and the Internet.

And Michigan businesses, he says, are starting to foster it. Their lithium-ion battery manufacturing plants, plans to construct wind turbine parts, and simmering efforts to capture wind for energy are part of the state's nascent green economy. Other opportunities are out there: Scientists are working on capturing energy from waves as well as water currents, and working to bring down the costs of producing such clean energy so that it can be produced and used.

"We have huge opportunities in the Great Lakes," Pruss says.

He knows, as he's had more than a hand in developing it. Pruss served as Gov. Jennifer Granholm's chief energy officer, heading the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth. He left last year to start 5 Lakes, a Lansing-based environmental consulting firm that seeks to unite private business, government, the research sector and universities to maximize green technology development.

His work has been noticed. Late last year, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu appointed Pruss to the 19-member panel advising the Department of Energy about clean energy and energy efficiency. It's the first such federal panel and an often-mentioned priority for the Obama administration.

Pruss brings a background in environmental law, a history of working — often behind the scenes — in state government, and an eternal optimism. He talked with Metro Times about the Michigan's position and potential in the green economy.

Metro Times: What is the forecast for opportunities in the "green economy"?

Stanley "Skip" Pruss: If you believe as I do that the world is transitioning to clean energy technology over the next 40 years, the market is essentially unlimited. I think you can reliably believe that the clean energy technology revolution will be much more robust and of longer duration than the Internet revolution.

MT: Why?

Pruss: The existing way we produce electricity and power in the world is through large baseload plants. We're changing to a different paradigm which is distributive generation: smaller generation capacity from wind and solar or natural gas plants or biomass plants that are distributed over geographic areas and connected by what will be a super-intelligent smart grid.

MT: You seem very optimistic about these changes happening. Is that because of what you've observed in the state and nationally?

Pruss: From my vantage point, really, it's not a question of whether everything is going to happen, it's just question of when. Because it's a transition in a trillion-dollar industry, every state, every country will have opportunities and will have associated benefits and burdens, but more benefits than burdens. What we're trying to do is capture as much of this opportunity as possible. Michigan's latent strengths align with the opportunity so well. To the extent that we don't fully engage in this, we lose economic opportunity, we slow the diversification, the job creation, the investments we would otherwise have.

MT: Are there market barriers to green technology?

Pruss: Sometimes green efforts for homeowners aren't allowed because of restrictive covenants or local ordinances that prohibit them. Those are all impediments to greater clean energy adoption that ultimately we have to work on. Today clean energy costs more than the existing energy supply that's in your home or business because that energy is coming from fully paid for, fully depreciated existing systems that produce power for 5 or 6 cents a kilowatt-hour.

MT: But isn't green energy still too expensive for the average home or business owner to fully use it?

Pruss: The cost trajectory of fossil fuel and nuclear-based generation is going up. The cost of production of energy from clean energy technology is going down. Where those trajectories cross, that's something called grid parity, and we're already at grid parity for wind and we will in very short order be at grid parity for solar.

MT: What's driving Michigan's effort to get into green energy production?

Pruss: The first driver is that it's a trillion-dollar industry and is the best opportunity we have to diversify the economy, secure new jobs and secure new investment because it's such a big deal, because it's so huge. It's even bigger than automotive. Energy is almost 9 percent of our national economy, so that's huge, and the rest of the economy is dependent upon it. No. 2 is energy security. As a nation we spend $360 billion a year, more than that today; at $80 a barrel we import 12 million barrels of transportation fuels a day so we spend more than $1 billion a day importing foreign oil.

MT: Has such a post-industrial transition happened anywhere else?

Pruss: Germany is a very, very interesting example. It is an industrialized country with a strong labor force. It's the home of Volkswagen, Mercedes Benz, BMW, Audi and Porsche. It's an automobile-producing country, a manufacturing country — and guess what? In 10 years they build a renewable energy industry where 300,000 people are employed in the renewable energy industry and it will soon surpass in terms of employment the automobile industry in Germany. Germany is the only industrialized country in the world that has successfully reindustrialized, and Michigan has the strengths to do the same.

MT: Has the new governor shown any shades of green?

Pruss: We're very optimistic about Gov. Snyder. He's a businessman. He's a technologist. He is one who should be able to completely understand the full opportunities that exist in this sector and how they can be optimized to advantage Michigan.

MT: Does the Legislature have a role?

Pruss: You need good policy and that policy needs to be manifested in good legislation. There is a job to be done, a challenge to educate the Michigan legislature.

MT: But there is opposition to elements of green energy, wind power, for example. Why hasn't wind power been universally embraced?

Pruss: There are technical issues and economic issues. But perhaps the single biggest issue is the aesthetic issue. People are worried about spoiling their view with the turbines. An interesting fact about that is that there is technology that's being developed for floating platforms and the larger turbines that will be available in future years will allow offshore wind to be deployed in the middle of Lake Michigan or the middle of Lake Huron where the aesthetic issues are no longer issues.

MT: So what's holding back the green economy?

Pruss: I think there has to be a confluence between educational efforts, technology development and economic opportunity. Right now, a lot of people may not understand it, may not embrace it, may think it's wild-ass stuff, but the international investment communities all understand it. It's just a matter of how long and how great the learning curve is going to be in Michigan.