Energy Intelligence

MAREC's executive director works to change energy policy

--by Brian J. Bowe

Since the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon opened its doors in 2004, staff members have given tours to hundreds of visitors from all walks of life. Visitors are often startled when they're told about the United States' energy consumption, said Executive Director Imad Mahawili.

The U.S. consumes 21 million barrels of oil per day, he said, 12.6 million of which are imported from other countries. That amounts to around $328 billion a year sent overseas to buy oil.

"We are a nation on high intensity consumption of fossil fuels, and that underpins our geopolitical situation in the world," Mahawili said. "We can't speak about energy without addressing geopolitical issues."

It's a topic that Mahawili is passionate about. He's an inventor and an entrepreneur who understands the science behind our energy consumption. He also knows that ultimately this battle is going to be won or lost on the economic field. And with oil prices soaring, the world becoming increasingly unstable and concerns about global warming becoming more troubling, he hopes more people will embrace the necessary changes.

"People are talking about energy more than ever before, or at least since the '70s," Mahawili said.

The center was established as a SmartZone created by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation in 2001 as part of an effort to promote and attract high technology business development in the state. It functions as a business incubator for companies working on developing commercial applications for alternative and renewable energies.

As a facility, MAREC is operating well with a series of what Mahawili calls "very advanced and leading-edge power generating technologies." Those include a molten carbonate fuel cell, photovoltaic cells that capture energy from the sun, a nickel metal hydride battery system that stores excess energy for use later, and a microturbine.

Through MAREC's work, Grand Valley has demonstrated how renewable energy technology can be evaluated and tested. But Mahawili said that even the best research into new technology won't solve the nation's energy woes without changes in consumption habits and governmental economic policies.

"The critical issues are political," Mahawili said. "We need to have modifications of regulations and laws so that we encourage renewable energy investments."

Specifically, there need to be some governmental policy changes to the buy/sell agreements between utilities and energy generators. Under current regulations, Mahawili explained, electric energy is purchased at 10 cents per kilowatt hour, but if MAREC were to sell power, it could only sell it for 2.1 cents.

Mahawili asked: "How is that an incentive to actually invest in renewable energy technologies?"

Investing in renewable energy technology makes particular sense for a state like Michigan, which currently imports 93 percent of its annual energy from out of state -- to the tune of $28 billion in 2006, post-Hurricane Katrina. But if Michigan began embracing renewable energy, the state could not only improve the environment but also the economy by creating jobs and retaining some of those funds in Michigan, Mahawili said.

One of Mahawili's goals is to see Michigan set a renewable portfolio standard -- a target of how much power generated will come from renewable sources. In Germany and California, the goal is 20 percent by 2020; in Wisconsin, the goal is 4 percent by 2020.

"We don't have one, so we don't even have a vision," Mahawili said.

Without the renewable portfolio standards and a different buy/sell agreement, there seems to be little chance that renewable energy can be successful in Michigan.

"We can say the words," Mahawili said. "We seem to be a few years away from real bottom line realization of this from a business point of view."

MAREC's own biomass program offers an example of the difficulties in setting up economically viable alternative energy generation in Michigan.

Two years ago, Mahawili submitted a grant application to the Michigan Public Service Commission for a project to turn animal waste into electricity at an area farm. Last August, the MPSC funded the program and plans were drawn up. The project is designed, ready to break ground and looking for a suitable host.

"The battle has been to find a farmer who can take the plant," Mahawili said. "We've looked at several farmers and several business propositions, and they don't want to invest much at all in the site preparation for setting up the plant." The economics would be different if there was a more favorable buy/sell agreement in place.

The difficulties are not deterring Mahawili from his mission. He spends his time giving presentations, testifying before Congress and the state Legislature. In August, he chaired two sections of the ninth World Renewable Energy Congress in Florence, Italy. And he has developed an energy audit program that businesses pay MAREC to conduct to figure out how to save energy -- and money. A by-product of that program is it educates people about energy issues.

"If you can make people aware, you can create an impact," he said. While new technologies hold promise, Mahawili said the best solution is a familiar one.

"If you ask me what is the solution today, No. 1 is intelligent conservation," Mahawili said. "Be intelligent about efficiency. Close your windows, turn your lights off, improve your insulation. That's significant efficiency today without much investment."

Page last modified July 28, 2011