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Thursday, 21 June 2012 13:28

New energy tech relies on public-private partnerships

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New energy tech relies on public-private partnerships Courtesy photo
MUSKEGON — Michigan's startup energy technology and manufacturing companies need working public-private partnerships to succeed and prosper.

That was the message June 11 at a panel discussion "Innovation Through Collaboration" sponsored by the newly formed Energy Innovation Business Council and featuring representatives from Dow Kokam LLC, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, NextEnergy and the Michigan Economic Development Corp. Grand Valley State University's Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center hosted the discussion.

Many business leaders say that a strong collaborative movement to create, manufacture and distribute renewable and
 alternative energy technologies will open new doors for Michigan's economy. By combining the state's vast institutional resources and its high density of engineering talent, sources say Michigan is capable of solidifying a position in the burgeoning global alternative and renewable energy market.

Today, Michigan's alternative and renewable energy industry features a range of companies, from small, technology-based startups to spin-offs from major corporations like Dow.

Working in partnership with the National Advanced Battery Association, Dow Kokam plans to pursue Department of Energy funding for projects involving grid-based energy storage, said Bill Gagliardi, director of public affairs and branding for Dow Kokam. The Midland-based company's research investigates aggregating power from multiple alternative energy producers and getting that energy onto the grid, Gagliardi said. The industry wants to collaborate on projects so it can push development forward and drive down the costs of alternative energy while simultaneously growing the number of available solutions, he said.

"Costs are coming down," he said. "We'd all like the (electric vehicle) market to go a little faster, but that's also why we're looking into other (markets) like distributed energy and defense applications."

But the industry and companies like Dow Kokam need to be focused on a broader range of issues than just the installation costs of alternative energy storage technologies, including advanced batteries.

"We want to talk about total costs of ownership, we want to talk about lifecycles and the life of the energy storage system and what it will put back," he said. "If you think about a utility company that has a power outage, due to whatever the circumstances, it costs them millions of dollars to get energy in there and millions of dollars to replace it. If they had energy storage through advanced batteries in place, they'd save millions. It's not just to price per kilowatt-hour. It's actually the total cost of the picture that's important."

With technology commercialization serving as the goal and a key driver of cost reduction, many projects often need to leverage state and federal dollars to give private sector funds some degree of market certainty. Department of Defense contracts in particular have helped in that regard.

NextEnergy's development of a portable smart grid, known as Electrical Power Control & Conditioning (EPCC, pronounced "epic") modules, is one such energy-based collaboration.

Next Energy, a 10-year-old Detroit-based nonprofit organization charged with being a catalyst for advanced energy research and commercialization, routinely works with the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, major utilities including DTE and automotive OEMs such as Chrysler, said Sam Hogg, director of venture development for NextEnergy.

The EPCC vehicle program was one of the largest programs that took place at NextEnergy, Hogg said.

With the help of the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) in Warren, MI, NextEnergy developed what became essentially a portable SmartGrid.

The technology aggregates various types of power into a "U.S. grid-quality" format, eliminating power flickers and surges and allowing for the efficient use of generator fuels in remote locations.

TARDEC debuted the technology at the 2010 North American International Auto Show.

"We use contractors from the west side of the state and the east side of the state to help build this stuff," Hogg said. "Folks are really benefiting from these Department of Defense contracts all throughout the state of Michigan, which is really the mission of NextEnergy to go out and get these contracts and make sure they're happening here, making our companies in Michigan more competitive."

Hogg said the technology caught the eye of the utilities and the automotive manufacturers.

Previous reports indicated both Muskegon-based Newkirk Electric Associates Inc. and Grand Rapids-based Coffman Electric Equipment Co. assisted in the EPCC project.

"It's great to see this kind of collaboration come together because it's very real and it's creating real things," Hogg said. "NextEnergy doesn't really have any interest in maintaining (intellectual property). We work through partners so that they can be more successful."

NextEnergy's site functions as an incubator with six high-bay labs, one of which is used by Wayne State University's Biofuels Research and Development Center. The Department of Energy-funded program has spun out two startup companies, including NextCat Inc., whose work consists of commercializing a series of catalysts for biodiesel production.

NextEnergy has also hosted projects from the University of Michigan and Michigan State University.

"The Michigan State folks realized that what they were doing (was) something very complementary to what the U of M folks were doing. Both were able to push their research along a little further," Hogg said. "There is a big effort statewide and the MEDC has really bolstered their position in making sure it's happening to get the universities to work together. It's become very apparent in going after large federal programs that that type of collaboration is really desirable."

Hogg said federal projects of more than $5 million almost require collaboration among universities and industry. That's led to universities competing less with one another and to them developing large technology portfolios, he said.

The next step in commercialization involves harvesting that knowledge, he said, pointing to the MEDC, which has started to prioritize technology transfer and entrepreneurism.

Another group helping speed the commercialization of research is the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a Tennessee-based network of 17 federally funded research centers, some of which are government owned and contractor operated.

"We as a lab community have to do a better job of creating awareness for our capabilities and explaining how (businesses) can access them," said Ray Boeman, director of Transportation Technology Program and National Transportation Research User Facility at Oak Ridge.

Boeman said Michigan has done a good a job in supporting emerging technology products. Through cost sharing, matching funds and leveraging state dollars through the MEDC, Oak Ridge continues to lend its abilities to other private companies in the state, including Dow Kokam, Aestreus Wind Energy, Energetx, and Dow Chemical, he said.

"(The MEDC's) objective is to always leverage collaborations and to work together with each entity's strength in creating something new and promoting economic development," said Antonio Lück, MEDC entrepreneurship and innovation portfolio manager.

Matching startups or later-stage companies to the right programs is a key factor in the companies' growth, Lück said. The MEDC also helps support companies through the Michigan Small Business Technology and Development Center, Pure Michigan Business Connect and Pure Michigan Venture Match Fund, he said.

The MEDC plans to open the door to a wider variety of technology projects — beyond energy — by making changes to the MEDC Centers for Excellence program, now known as the Centers for Innovation, Lück said.

"We all know the challenges startups face," he said. "We are focused on creating an environment where we can potentially increase success rates."

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