Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Turn energy into new Apollo project

Keith W. Cooley

Forty years ago this past month, Neil Armstrong took that "one small step for (a) man," inspiring wonder around the world. As we remember the many people who built this country's space program -- astronauts, engineers, production workers and business leaders -- we should also note the similarities to today's program to launch a 21st-century alternative energy economy and Michigan's contributions to both.

Early on at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Ed White, a University of Michigan-trained aeronautical engineer, became the first American to walk in space during the Gemini 4 flight of 1965. His commander, James McDivitt, was a Kalamazoo native and a fellow U-M grad.

The crew members of the Apollo 15 moon landing -- perhaps the most successful space mission ever -- all have degrees from U-M. And Clarence "Kelly" Johnson of Ishpeming -- who earned degrees from Flint Junior College and U-M -- founded and directed Lockheed Martin's legendary "Skunk Works" engineering shop, designing the U-2 surveillance plane, the F-80 Shooting Star fighter jet and 40 other advanced military and commercial airplanes.

The roots of Michigan's national leadership run deep. During World War II, Detroit was known as the "Arsenal of Democracy" -- the city that temporarily stopped producing automobiles to supply the Allies with the tanks, planes and trucks needed to win. After the September 11 attacks, firefighters from around the state -- including 19 from Monroe alone -- traveled to New York City to assist the search for survivors in the rubble of the twin towers.

Where the great race of the 20th century was to reach the moon, the great race today is in alternative energy. Rising fossil fuel prices and climate change have driven most major countries around the world to adopt ambitious targets for generating power from wind, solar and other alternative energy sources. The country that leads the world in this emerging industry will lead the world in economic growth through the 21st century.

Scientists, engineers, workers and businesspeople in Michigan are again serving our national interest by developing and manufacturing alternative energy technologies here. With their leadership, we are building some of the world's most technologically advanced wind turbines, solar panels, biomass gasifiers and electric vehicles. Further, we are leveraging our already established automotive component supplier network to manufacture the thousands of parts and pieces that make up these complex systems.

To compete against China and other countries that are driving hard for these new technologies, we must build on our strengths. We have many research, engineering and manufacturing resources that can be galvanized to address this challenge, but to build a new, world-class alternative energy sector, we need a federal commitment to alternative energy on the scale of the Apollo program to reach the moon. This commitment is the objective sought by the Apollo Alliance -- a national coalition of industry, labor, environmental and community leaders working to catalyze the transition to alternative energy.

Our national leaders have begun addressing the energy challenge. With new federal legislation directed at these issues specifically -- including the American Clean Energy and Security Act passed by the House of Representatives, which is before the Senate -- they are calling for research and development programs, for funding to help manufacturers retool and retrain workers for the new economy, and for policies that will drive demand for wind, solar and other clean energy technologies.

As the recognized leader of the free world -- a position won through the hard work and the sacrifice of each successive generation -- we cannot afford to stay locked into 20th-century paradigms as the 21st century unfolds around us. So let's exert some leadership. Let's take hold of the alternative energy economy before China and others beat us to it.

And as we do, let's watch as Michigan's scientists, engineers, production workers and business leaders step up once again to lead the way.

Keith W. Cooley is the president and CEO of NextEnergy in Detroit, a technology and business accelerator for alternative and renewable energies.


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