Growing the region's clean economy

Jul 21, 2011

The clean economy is touted as a future economic driver of the region. But a new report shows that while Ohio and Illinois have added jobs to the clean economy, Michigan is the only state to have lost them. Changing Gears visited one scientist in Plymouth, Mich., who’s trying to nudge that number back up.

Geoff Horst has a scientist’s air of geeky restraint. But when a little box arrived at his lab the other day he got excited. Inside were vials filled with stinky sludge: wastewater from a landfill in Ohio.

“It literally looks black — like black as Guinness beer,” Horst said.  “And so we like to tell people that we take it from Guinness to Miller Lite color.”

Horst is chief science officer of a start-up developing a new way to treat high-strength wastewater. That’s the really concentrated stuff that drains from breweries, ethanol plants, dairies and even meat-rendering plants.  Traditionally, treatment plants have used bacteria to gobble up the organic material in that wastewater.

“When we say bacteria, there could be literally thousands of different species of bacteria that do this job,” Horst said.

Some break down sugars, others fats or proteins.  But bacteria don’t do as well with nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous.  These are the kinds of nutrients that feed huge algal blooms in Lake Erie and the Gulf of Mexico.

“The way we were thinking of it is, well, if algae can grow really well out in nature on these nutrients,” Horst said, “maybe we can control them, and do it in a controlled environment and actually put them to work.”

SoAlgal Scientific was born. The idea is to treat wastewater with algae that can efficiently do both jobs: break down organic material and tackle extra nutrients. Horst thinks food processors and other facilities that use the system to treat wastewater onsite could pay millions less in fees to large treatment plants.

In general, if you want to hitch your horse to the so-called “clean economy,” waste management is a good place to start. It’s the number one job creator in the sector, according to a new report from The Brookings Institution. Jonathan  Rothwell is one of the authors who studied the growth of clean economy jobs from 2003 to 2010. The sector covers a wide swath, from alternative energy to public transportation.

“The general trend is that Illinois and Ohio were able to add jobs in the clean economy, whereas Michigan experienced a net loss,” he said.

The report found most clean jobs and growth concentrated in large metro areas. Chicago had the third highest number of clean jobs in the nation. Toledo ranked high in the share of its jobs that belong to the clean economy.

But Midwest boosters want the region to capitalize on another finding: More than a quarter of clean economy jobs involve manufacturing, which is much higher than the national average.  Jonathan Rothwell says the green economy is largely blue collar.

“The industrial Midwest happens to have a lot of these workers and a lot of them are unemployed currently,” Rothwell said, “but they do have a set of skills developed from on the job training.”

Excess manufacturing capacity is just one of the reasons Horst wants Algal Scientific to grow in Michigan.

“We’re in the epicenter of where … some of the world’s largest resources of fresh water are located,” he said. “And if we can help preserve that natural environment, you know, I’d like my kids to be able to grow up in a pristine environment, and so that’s what I’m trying to do here.”

The start-up hopes to add 20 jobs to Michigan’s clean economy in the next three years. But first they’ll have to raise hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of dollars, to survive the so-called “valley of death.”  That’s the failure-laden terrain between an innovative demo and full-scale commercialization.