Anyone who has stood beside a Great Lake on a winter's day, with the cloudless sky overhead an icy blue and the wind pelting down from somewhere in Manitoba, knows the power of elemental nature. The water, the wind, the frosty sun -- this is energy, pure but untamed.
Recently, advocates of alternative forms of "green" energy have looked at this abundance of nature and seen something just as basic -- dollars, jobs, a new economy for the Midwest. If green energy is the energy of the future, and if the Midwest is so richly endowed with these elements, how can we miss?
The only problem is getting there from here. So far, we don't have the science to make this happen. We don't have the money to pay for the science. The Midwest is not exactly alone in seeing riches in the green economy, so the competition with other regions will be fierce. Private industry seems unlikely to make the huge investment necessary in an industry that may or may not pay off. Midwestern states should do it but these states, hard hit by the recession, are having trouble paying current bills and seem unlikely to make this investment in the future.
A valuable new paper, published by the Brookings Institution, tackles these issues by calling for federal investment to "launch a region-wide network of collaborative, high-intensity energy research and innovation centers."
Nobody else is really doing this research, according to the authors, former University of Michigan President James Duderstadt and two Brookings analysts. The field is wide open, they said, and the Midwest has the assets -- "a rich complex of strong public universities, national and corporate research laboratories and top-flight science and engineering talent" -- to seize the lead.
The need certainly is here. The Midwest's traditional manufacturing economy is vanishing. This energy initiative could "populate auto country with an array of break-through-seeking, high-intensity research centers."
What Duderstadt and his colleagues have in mind is about six innovation centers, structured regionally instead of state-by-state, each needing about $1 billion to $2 billion in federal funds per year. Some examples:
- A southeastern Michigan collaboration involving the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin, Michigan State, General Motors and Dow Chemical, aimed at developing sustainable transport.
- A Chicago-focused collaboration with Northwestern, University of Chicago, Purdue, University of Illinois, Argonne National Lab, Exelon and Boeing, working on sustainable electricity generation and distribution.
- In Ohio, Ohio State University and the Battelle Institute would seek technologies for energy efficiency.
All this plays to existing strengths. Argonne already is working on energy storage and fuel and engine efficiency. Nearby, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory is a center of high-energy physics research. At Champaign-Urbana, bioscientists are developing new plants for alternative fuels. There's a solar industry cluster around Toledo, a solar energy lab at Madison, and advanced silicon and silicon-based technology at Dow Corning's Michigan facilities.
Industry and investors would be urged to take part, and the goal of commercial spinoff -- creating new business and jobs -- would be at the top of the agenda. "The regional energy centers," the paper says, "would focus rather heavily on commercialization and deployment,....woudl be structured to maximize the volume, speed and positive societal impact of commercialization."
All this makes sense, from many angles. The Midwest already accounts for about one-third of all U.S. industrial carbon emissions, so it has a strong vested interest, economic and ecological, in cleaning up its own act. In addition, the region is rich in academic muscle: it already accounts for 33 percent of all academic and 30 percent of all industry research and development in this country, according to the Brookings paper, and gets 26 percent of all Department of Energy R&D grants. Besides its universities and laboratories, it has "private- and public-sector clean-energy activities and financing, abundant natural resources in wind and biomass, and robust, pre-existing industrial platforms for research, next-generational manufacturing and technology and deployment."
But all this added up still doesn't amount to a trail-blazing energy industry. Most of this work and research is locked up in academic and industrial silos, sealed off from competition and the market. As the paper says, "siloed approaches simply do not work well when it comes to tackling the complexity of the nation's real-world energy challenges." The federal government should be demanding collaborative work, it says, but doesn't.
Duderstadt, himself a professor of science and engineering, has been beating the drum for a regional approach to both education and economic development, and urging new methods to link the academy to the economy. In this area -- energy innovation -- he sees the need for a good strong push from Washington.