One of the centerpieces of Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s plan to replace lost manufacturing jobs – a bill passed last week by the Senate calling for alternative energy sources for government buildings – has some experts doubting whether the push for renewable energy could lend to job growth.

Brian Merlos

Some are unsure about the economic impact of Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s call for a 10-percent increase in renewable energy use by 2015, because the strength of the industry is unknown.

Trevor Lauer, vice president of retail marketing for DTE Energy, said renewable energy jobs wouldn’t be stable until manufacturers of renewable energy technology moved their facilities to Michigan.

“They produce the actual blades and wind turbines in Michigan, and that’s where you see a large percentage of manufacturing jobs open up in Michigan,” Lauer said.

An increase in the use of renewable energy throughout the state would first bring construction jobs, he said.

Rep. Aldo Vagnozzi (D-Farmington Hills) cosponsored a bill in the state House of Representatives last year that would require that 10 percent of energy come from renewable sources.

“We’d have to build facilities and things like that which would create construction jobs and the ongoing job of running the systems,” he said.

But Lauer said the everyday maintenance of renewable energy facilities would ultimately create fewer jobs than a traditional power plant would.

“There are more moving parts and pieces and a higher reliance on skilled trade involved with a conventional generating resource than a renewable resource,” he said.

Danielle Korpalski, an environmental associate for Environment Michigan, which supports the renewable energy bills in the state Legislature, said job opportunities would only become available after Michigan actually passes the legislation.

“We’re looking at places like Illinois and Wisconsin that have started to pursue renewable energy strongly, and they’ve already started to see those job benefits,” she said. “But our options are more forward-looking because we haven’t made that strong commitment yet.”

A study released by the Blue Green Alliance – a joint effort between the United Steelworkers and the Sierra Club that focuses on global warming, creating environmental jobs and reducing toxins – said renewable energy fields could offer almost 35,000 new jobs for the state alone. Wind energy would provide 24,350 jobs, according to the study.

The study said bio-energy from plant and animal material, including crops for fuel, could offer 2,281 new jobs while geothermal energy, which uses heat from the earth, could offer about 1,500 new jobs. Solar energy could create 6,644 new jobs.

But considering its long winters and reputation for cloudy days, the outlook on solar energy in Michigan is bleak.

Lauer said solar energy isn’t cost effective because “the sun just doesn’t shine enough here.”

But Greg Keoleian, co-director of the Center for Sustainable Systems in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, said Michigan has potential to use solar energy.

“East of Detroit, the solar radiation is about 3.8 kilowatt hours per meter per day, and just for comparison, Phoenix gets 5.7,” he said. “So in terms of solar energy, it’s not as low as people might think.”

In 2003, SNRE installed a 30-kilowatt solar panel on the roof the Dana Building.

Keoleian said the energy output for solar panels depends on the weather and time of day.

“Our building load for Dana is about 142 kilowatts, and right now the output is 3.8 kilowatts,” he said.

The percentage of the building’s energy generated by the solar panel varies, he said. In the past it has been as high as 34 percent.

Keoleian said the greatest challenge for solar energy is the cost.

Energy from sources like power plants costs about 10 cents an hour, wind generation costs about 12 cents an hour and solar energy runs about 20 to 45 cents an hour.

According to a report in the science magazine Wired, Germany, which has fewer sunny days than Michigan, has increased its solar energy output fourfold since 1999.

Korpalski said Germany’s success with solar panels should be a call to action for Michigan.

“People are saying, ‘How do we know solar panels will work? It’s not even that sunny.’ But we can point to a place like Germany and say that it’s a very viable option for energy in Michigan,” she said.

Rackham student Keri Dick, who does research in the Center for Sustainable Systems, Michigan could take advantage of the solar panels that operate best during cloudy days.

“There’s energy coming through even if there are clouds,” she said. “The sun is still shining on the Earth.”

Dick said there’s no telling what type of impact the plan could have on the state’s job market.

“It’s too soon to know how adding this policy will actually affect the amount of jobs because it’s a long-term plan,” she said.

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