Locally made turbines create jobs

MUSKEGON, MICHIGAN - If alternative energy development is the answer to the country's economic woes — as President-elect Barack Obama and many others have suggested — then Muskegon's future is looking bright.

The "wind turbine in a box" will be unwrapped at ACE Hardware stores across the country next May with a "made in Muskegon" tag. The product, inspired by the Grand Valley State University Energy Center and produced by local company EarthTronics, can save consumers electricity costs and is expected to generate about 100 local jobs that could balloon to many more.

"This can truly be a Michigan product," said EarthTronics President Reg Adams of the turbines that are expected to begin production in early 2009. "This is Michigan's to lose. Our plan is to do this right here in Muskegon."

EarthTronics and the local Port City Group will begin manufacturing the wind turbines, called the WindTronics 760, could begin in Muskegon as soon as January.

Structurally, the turbine is mounted on a sturdy pole or rooftop and can reduce an average resident's electricity usage by about 15 percent. Energy savings improves to 30 percent when combined with the 30 CFL low-energy light bulbs included in the package, which will retail for $2,899 plus about $500 for professional installation.

Governmental rebates and tax credits could save buyers hundreds of dollars more.

The turbine produces an estimated 1,580 kilowatt hours of electricity per year and will be available in 4,200 ACE Hardware stores.

Assembly of the five-foot diameter, 78-pound units will require 60 workers at its Port City facility in the industrial park, Adams said, with an additional 40 employees based at its new downtown Muskegon headquarters.

Additional plans are to produce commercial units through Honeywell Corp. that could provide many more jobs in Muskegon.

EarthTronics has begun talking to the city of Muskegon and the Michigan Economic Development Corp. officials concerning issues of property tax abatements and state training grants.

"We are starting with just this first model," Adams said. "This product has a huge potential."

The design of the turbine has been tweaked to harness more energy by producing electricity at the tips of the blades rather than at the center of the hub and shaft. It is the first major product to be launched from the GVSU Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon.

MAREC Executive Director Imad Mahawili created the turbine design.

The WindTronic innovation allows for the turbine to begin producing electricity at a wind speed of 3 mph vs. a typical 8 mph. Also, the WindTronic has no upper limit. Many other turbines shut down when winds reach 30 mph or above, Adams said.

Blade tip speeds can be 10 times faster than those at the shaft, where traditional turbines produce their electricity, Adams said.

The bulb will save another 15 percent on home electrical bills for a total savings of 30 percent through conservation and alternative energy production, Adams said. The energy paybacks on the initial investment depends upon how windy it is in any given location. Estimates are still being developed, he said.

"The goal is conservation and innovation at the same time," Adams said. "We can't have one without the other if we are going to solve our energy issues."

The Windtronics 760 is a "plug and play" system that comes with the turbine; a "smart box" with electronic controls; inverter and storage batteries; and the equipment to hook into a house's electrical control panel.

In the future, the units will be able to provide "net metering," in which excess electricity not needed in the house can be sold back on to the public utility power grid.

Not included in the price is the potential federal, state and utility rebates for alternative energy. For example, Adams said, California may offer $1,000 in tax breaks per unit.

"Mr. (Bill) Gates (founder of Microsoft) decentralized computing with the PC operating system," Adams said. "We want to do the same for electrical energy. Like there is a PC in every house, we want a turbine on every house."

The initial roadblock to the WindTronic rollout will be installation, which needs a licensed electrician. EarthTronics will spend plenty of time in 2009 developing and training an installation and service network, Adams said.

As for manufacturing, The Port City Group is one of the investors in the WindTronics project, Adams said. The die-casting maker of parts for the auto and other sectors will handle the assembly of the units, he said.

Key parts are the blades, housing, wheel assembly, magnets and coils and light hardware in addition to the control box. The magnets will come from China and the EarthTronics partner with its CFL EarthBulbs products. Several of other the parts will come from Muskegon-area suppliers, he said.

Community economic developers are thrilled with the progress of the WindTronic turbine since it was publicly announced in June.

"We have been wanting to develop these type of products in Muskegon," said Ed Garner, president of Muskegon Area First -- the economic development agency. "It fits our vision of what we are trying to create in advanced manufacturing. Alternative energy is an emerging sector. It's exciting to be a player in that sector."

ACE will introduce the units at its Las Vegas hardware distribution show the first week of March. Production is expected to begin at 3,000 units a month, ramping up to 5,000.

Besides the residential ACE and Honeywell commercial units, EarthTronics is looking for other sales and distribution agreements in Canada, Europe and other parts of the world.

"This project is on a very fast track right now," Adams said.

Meanwhile, Earthtronics has 65 light bulb, ballast, and fixture products being sold by Radio Shack, ACE and Menard's among others. The company expects to move into the third floor of the downtown Muskegon Hines Building in January.


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