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Michigan wonders whether green jobs can save the rust belt

by Staff Writers
Eaton Rapids, Michigan (AFP) Aug 6, 2009
Massive hunks of roughly-cast metal sit on the gleaming floor of a Michigan factory, waiting to be cut into the hubs of wind turbines destined for Iowa.

Aside from the dramatic increase in size, the process is not very different from making the parts that Dowding Industries supplies to automakers.

Except for the fact that the company thinks there is a future in wind.

"We were getting out of (automotive) ten years ago. We really saw the writing on the wall," said Dowding president Jeff Metts.

Wind power, on the other hand, is "really, really exciting," he said.

For many here, the future seems to lie with "green jobs" -- employment associated with environmentally-friendly energy and resources.

The green jobs created at plants like this have been hailed as both the future and the savior of the so-called rust belt, which has been decimated by the recent collapse of the auto industry and the decades-long erosion of America's manufacturing might.

Michigan -- which as home to the Big Three US automakers has been hardest hit by their collapse -- is determined to capture as many of those green jobs as possible.

Governor Jennifer Granholm, a charismatic and energetic speaker with close ties to President Barack Obama, has been traveling the globe to pitch the state's resources to prospective employers.

Granholm promotes Michigan's experience with advanced manufacturing and its access to the shipping lines of the Great Lakes.

The aim is for the state to become a major production, design and engineering center for solar, geothermal and wind power, and the advanced batteries and engines used in hybrid, electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles.

"It's a natural for us," she told a green jobs conference the state hosted in May.

"We've got available factory space, and we have got the infrastructure associated with transporting these wind turbines, and we have suppliers who can do all of the component parts who are hungry and ready to go and we have a workforce that knows how to do CNC (computer numerical controlled) machining."

Michigan has celebrated some significant victories.

General Electric announced plans last month to build an advanced manufacturing technology and software center outside Detroit. Johnson Controls recently partnered with Ford on a new 220-million-dollar advanced-battery manufacturing facility. And the state's list of suppliers to the wind and solar industries tops more than 80 firms.

But several potential deals have fallen through because of a lack of available financing.

And while Michigan has a number of distinct advantages, it is facing stiff competition from other states, cautioned Mark Partridge, a regional economist at Ohio State University.

"Everybody is chasing this holy grail and only a handful will win," he said in a telephone interview.

"But for green energy to happen it has to be competitive, so by definition it can't be a major job generator."

Despite Obama's push to expand wind power to generate as much as 20 percent of the nation's energy, orders for wind turbine parts have been weak at Dowding's year-old plant in Eaton Rapids, a small town about 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of Detroit.

Dowding recently had to lay off nearly half of its 265 workers after orders dried up for auto and engine parts.

And even when the new 10-million-dollar facility is running at full capacity, it will never replace those jobs, let alone the hundreds of thousands of jobs lost across Michigan when the auto plants started shutting down.

"Our main goal is to drive the cost of renewable energy to compete with today's energy sources so we are trying to take costs out wherever possible," Metts told AFP.

"Being from Michigan, you have it in your DNA: how do you make it better, cheaper, faster?"

It currently takes Dowding about 30 hours to skim the excess metal off a 15 ton (13.6 tonne) wind turbine hub and bore the holes needed to piece the parts together.

But it only takes one person to watch over the computerized process.

Metts wants to cut the process down to just four hours by building a dedicated machine that can work on the hub from several different angles with multiple spindles, a process which helped automakers dramatically boost their productivity.

He also has plans to do the same for turbine blades, which most companies are still building by hand.

That will mean dramatically fewer man-hours per blade, but it is the only way to build them to a consistent standard and improve their reliability.

The problem is getting the 100 million dollars in start-up loans Dowding needs to make it work when banks are still reeling from the financial crisis.

And while Metts received an enthusiastic welcome when he met recently with top officials in the Obama administration, government funding is also hard to come by -- at least in the United States.

"China has called us and asked us to come over and they'll finance the whole thing. But we're trying to do it here," Metts said.

"Michigan's a great place. We don't want to see it fail."

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