Rust Wire correspondent Ivy Hughes recently visited Germany’s Ruhr District, a northwestern part of the country recovering from the loss of jobs in of the steel and coal industry. The district includes 53 cites and more than 5.3 million residents. The region is a 2010 European Capital of Culture, an annul EU designation awarded to a city or region for the purpose of showcasing its cultural development. As such, the municipalities within the Ruhr District worked within a €62.5 million budget to create 300 projects and 2,500 events highlighting its cultural assets and efforts to reconstruct an economy devastated by the demise a prominent industrial sector. This three-part series highlights some of the structural, economic and cultural changes a region similar to the Rust Belt in terms of industrial and economic collapse is making to facilitate economic diversification. Her trip was made possible through the Ecologic Institute and sponsored by the German Federal Foreign Office through the Transatlantic Climate Bridge. Read Part One of her series here.
Part Two: Alternating Alternative Models
Green. It’s no longer a color or even a buzzword; it’s criteria for tax credits and the genesis of a lifestyle. It’s also an industry, one aging manufacturing regions are relying on for economic recovery.
It took the desecration of Michigan’s prevailing economic driver (autos) and the Ruhr district’s (steel and coal) for the regions to recognize the impossibly of expecting one or two industries to be the economic panacea for an entire region or state. Today, both regions are diversifying economic portfolios rooted in alternative energy.
Michigan is handing incentives to alternative energy companies, persuading them to fill empty industrial facilities and hire unemployed, skilled manufacturing talent. The state has had some success, but replacing one industry with another without creating a pipeline for talent or new enterprise, could propel Michigan into a solar powered unemployment hike.
Michigan has some effective business incubators, but they lack continuity particularly as it relates to fueling the alternative energy sector. Incubator tenants have access to resources and cheap workspace but when they expand outside of the incubator, they are, in a manner of speaking, on their own.
The Science Park in Gelsenkirchen, Germany is the most comprehensive example of incubation that I’ve seen because it was developed as a cyclical, rather than a linear, business model. Everything in the park and the surrounding area — landscape, structures, housing stock, education, talent and industry — move together. The park and Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (FhG ISE) churn talent and support business; alternative energy businesses power the park; and new companies use the park to test new products.
The Science Park sits on the former 5.4 million square foot Rheinelbe coal mine in southern Gelsenkirchen. The coal mine opened in 1929 and closed in 1984. In 1989, plans were laid to turn the area into a hotbed for alternative energy enterprise and research.
Thanks to a €44 million investment, the Science Center opened in 1995. Several energy-based companies moved into the park and in 1996, construction of what would be one of the world’s largest roof top solar fields, began on Science Center. During its 30-year life expectancy, the field is expected to prevent the emission of 4,500 tons of carbon dioxide.
The Science Park is aesthetically appealing — it looks out onto a lake and recreational space divided by a 300-meter glass lift, it’s located on contaminated industrial property, and includes a biomass park — but it works because it’s the nucleus of something much greater.
The Science Park is part of International Building Exhibition Emscher Park (IBA) Emscher Park Project, a 10-year regional plan to implement 120 alternative energy-based projects in 17 cities with a population of approximately 2 million people. The Science Park is surrounded by former industrial neighborhoods turned into solar villages; a solar power plant developed on former ore and coalbunkers; alternative energy companies; a biomass park; the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (FhG ISE) as a lab; and R&D space. It’s an alternative energy Petri dish.
Michigan is working on something similar….sort of. Renovation of the approximately 4.7 million square foot former Ford Wixom Assembly Plant is the state’s first full scale push for an alternative energy park. The three alternative companies committed to the “Ford Renewable Energy Park” — Xtreme Power, Clairvoyant Energy and Oerlikon Solar — are expected to start producing photovoltaic panels, advanced battery storage technologies and other renewable energy components by 2012.
A “regional center for jobs training and education” is planned for the complex as is some model to bring spin-offs to market, making the “Ford Renewable Energy Park” the state’s most ambitious attempt at creating a genuine alternative energy incubator. Not surprisingly, funding is an issue. The companies are waiting on additional funding for the approximately $725 million renovation.
Completion of the complex would be a huge feat for Michigan but it’s hard to imagine the Ford Renewable Energy Park impacting the Detroit Tri-Country region like the Science Park did the 17 cities included in the Emscher Park Project.
Approximately four million people live in the Detroit Tri-County area, which includes 200 cities and towns. It’s difficult to conceptualize even half of the Detroit Tri-County population (2 million people) and half of its municipalities (100) coalescing to develop a 10-year plan to foster the region’s alternative energy sector. Michigan is one of the most politically and racial divisive regions of the country and, obviously, economics is a major issue.
However, resident-driven cultural, economic, environmental and development projects are popping up all over the state and the groups pulling these projects together, are much more adept at collaboration than the spider web of Michigan’s political factions, business groups and unions.
But the state has to start somewhere and no one knows where alternative energy is headed. Michigan is assessing its assets and is taking a risk on the Ford Renewable Energy Park and for a state with one of the country’s highest unemployment rates, that’s something.