April 2010, Vol. 22, No.4

Michigan’s Blue Water Economy

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Ask a dozen people what they think of when they hear the word “Michigan,” and many will mention the automotive industry. Only a few will remember the reason the ailing industry made the state its home in the first place.

“It was the water,” explained John Cherry, the state’s lieutenant governor, who grew up hunting and fishing in Saginaw Valley on Michigan’s lower peninsula. “The Great Lakes made it possible to bring all the necessary manufacturing resources to one location.”

With an unemployment rate of more than 14% — the highest in the country — the state is now turning its face to the water again. Cherry is leading a statewide economic development initiative with the dual purpose of protecting Michigan’s waters and transforming the traditional manufacturing-centered state into a leader in water technology.

Ask a dozen people what they think of when they hear the word “Michigan,” and many will mention the automotive industry. Only a few will remember the reason the ailing industry made the state its home in the first place. 

“It was the water,” explained John Cherry, the state’s lieutenant governor, who grew up hunting and fishing in Saginaw Valley on Michigan’s lower peninsula . “The Great Lakes made it possible to bring all the necessary manufacturing resources to one location.”  

The Great Lakes, in fact, have been at the foundation of the region’s economy since the first humans walked the peninsula, Cherry said. Bounded by four of the five Great Lakes, Michigan has the longest freshwater shoreline of any state in the country. No resident is ever more than 10 km (6 mi) from a lake or stream. 

“Water defines Michigan,” Cherry said. “The first Europeans used the lakes to transport their furs. Over the years, the lakes have supported agriculture, forestry, fishing, shipping, and dozens of industries.” 

And yet, at the height of the state’s industrialization, many Michigan communities turned their backs on the state’s most abundant natural resource. “We mostly took it for granted until our economy became threatened,” Cherry said. 

By then, the water in the lakes had also become threatened, both from pollution and from invasive species, such as Asian carp, that now endanger the region’s $7 billion sport fishing industry, as well as the entire Great Lakes ecosystem. 

With an unemployment rate of more than 14% — the highest in the country — the state is now turning its face to the water again. Cherry is leading a statewide economic development initiative with the dual purpose of protecting Michigan’s waters and transforming the traditional manufacturing-centered state into a leader in water technology.
 

Green Jobs for Blue Water

Michigan is not the first state to attempt to capitalize on the growing demand for new water conservation and management technologies. But it is one of the few places in the mix that is not facing a water shortage itself, according to Gil Pezza, director of water technology initiatives for the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC; Lansing). “We’re obviously not driven by a lack of water,” Pezza explained. “Our state’s bigger challenges have traditionally been on the processing and effluent side of the equation. That’s where users face the larger expense.”  

Along with the lieutenant governor, MEDC is taking a lead role in the statewide initiative to bring businesses to Michigan that offer innovative, sustainable, and money-saving water technologies. The state has even branded the initiative, calling it “Green Jobs for Blue Waters.” 

The initiative’s goal is to protect Michigan’s water resources while helping municipal, industrial, agricultural, and residential users find cost-effective solutions to their water-related challenges, according to Pezza. New jobs are important, too. By seeding the state with innovative water technology companies, Pezza also expects to position Michigan to tap into the $200 billion U.S. water marketplace. 

It’s an approach the state has used successfully before.  

More than a year ago, the federal government put financial incentives in place for companies that developed advanced battery technology for the automotive industry. “The industry is transitioning to something beyond a simple internal-combustion engine, and we wanted to be part of it,” Cherry said. Drawing on its decades of automotive experience, Michigan responded by bringing companies to the state and supporting local business that focused on battery technology.  

The strategy worked. Last August, General Motors Corp. (Detroit) chose a Michigan location for the nation’s first high-volume U.S. automotive lithium-ion battery manufacturing facility. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded more than $1.2 billion in funds to Michigan projects to support advanced battery and electric-
vehicle manufacturing and development. “We identified an emerging market and positioned ourselves to take advantage of it as it matured,” Cherry said. The water market, he said, is currently in a similar position.
 

“Within the next 5 or 10 years, 30 or more states are forecasted to experience water shortages and will be looking for new sources of water and ways to make better use of the sources they have,” Cherry said.  

“We are working with local universities to develop our own homespun solutions to these problems,” Pezza said. “But to jump-start the process, we also want to bring in technologies from water-stressed countries that have water technology incubators in place and are already establishing best practices. There are a number of very good businesses that are interested in entering the U.S. market, and we want to be their partner.”  

  

Looking to Israel for Best Water Practices

One nation that Michigan’s leaders are taking a particularly close look at is Israel. Having struggled for decades with maintaining its diminishing groundwater resources amid severe drought, Israel is considered a pioneer in water conservation and reuse. 

Cherry is one of several Michigan leaders to participate in trade missions to Israel and the United Arab Emirates in recent months, both to learn about best water management practices and to form partnerships with water technology companies wishing to do business in the U.S.  

Within the past year, in fact, the state has developed partnerships with three companies to test their technologies in Michigan communities. 

The first was announced in April 2009, when the cities of Detroit and Farmington Hills entered into a partnership with the Israeli company Miya (Tel Aviv) for pilot projects aimed at reducing water loss caused by the cities’ aging infrastructure.  

Founded in 2008 by Israeli billionaire Shari Arison, Miya specializes in water loss management technologies, including water pressure management, leak detection, and selective pipe replacement. By combining multiple technologies, it claims to reduce water loss at a lower overall cost than large-scale infrastructure replacement. 

  

Wastewater Treatment and Energy-Generation Solutions

The Green Jobs for Blue Water Initiative aims to identify a variety of technologies that make wastewater treatment more cost-effective and have large-scale applications.  

Another Israeli technology that Michigan is piloting, for example, provides a stand-alone onsite wastewater treatment solution for small communities, as well as other industrial and commercial users that may not have direct access to a central wastewater treatment plant. Developed by EPC Ltd. (Shaar–Heffer, Israel), the system uses anaerobic digestion followed by an extended aeration process to convert wastewater into clean, odorless effluent for reuse in irrigation or other water reuse applications. Systems are designed to treat from 500 to 1900 m3/d (130,000 to 500,000 gal/d), with the larger systems costing approximately $500,000, not including the cost of piping and pump stations. The technology is being tested in rural Oakland County in eastern Michigan. “It looks to be a very cost-effective alternative for Michigan communities with fewer than 10,000 residents that operate on septic systems,” Pezza said.  

A third pilot project, also planned for Oakland County, involves microbial fuel-cell technology that generates energy directly from wastewater, according to Pezza. The Israeli company EMEFCY (Tel Aviv) markets the technology for use in industrial, municipal, and agricultural wastewater treatment plants. The technology is expected to reduce energy costs involved in wastewater treatment.  

By serving as a launching pad for these and other businesses in the U.S., Michigan hopes to reap both environmental and economic benefits.  

Most of the technologies used in water management and wastewater treatment are not easily transported over long distances, Pezza explained. A company in a foreign country that seeks to market its products in the U.S. most likely would need to build a U.S. manufacturing site. “Michigan has great manufacturing capabilities, so we are positioning ourselves as a gateway for foreign technology dealing with water,” Pezza said.  

“In the long term, we [also] hope to attract companies that are interested in using water intelligently and want to save money in doing so,” Pezza said. “If they choose to do business here, we’ll help them solve their water challenges with solutions that help them reduce their consumption of water and recycle their effluent.”  

  

Mary Bufe , WE&T  

 

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