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Hydro-powered public transit? Michigan has all the parts to think big

Feb 8, 2016

The Next Idea

In the 122 years that Michigan has been making cars, the automobile industry has taught us that it’s not about having the parts but how you put them together that makes all the difference. A disassembled car is just a pile of 20,000 or more pieces of dull metal, washers, connectors, nuts and ugly wiring piled in your driveway. But put them all together and you get the most transformative technology of the 20th century.

Leveraging the intersections of your parts is where all of the opportunity lies. And Michigan is a state of many parts.

Michigan has all the components to be a world-leader in hydro-powered rail transit, says Lawrence Dolph.
Credit Flickr/Astrid

In an era of climate change, it’s time to start examining how we can reassemble Michigan’s raw assets into something new.

The debate is no longer whether climate change is happening, but whether sea levels will rise 20 feet or 200 feet this century.

There is no debate that the winds will blow harder across Michigan, but only about how soon the winds will routinely exceed the standard the roofs of our homes have been engineered to meet.

One of the first causalities of climate intervention will be the auto industry, which is still a significant growth area in the Michigan economy. It has been difficult to retool automotive production to our new climate reality; taking the hydrocarbons out of the tailpipe is like taking the sizzle out of the steak. To mitigate this catastrophe, we clearly have to reduce our carbon emissions while generating energy and commerce using other means.

Thanks to a happy convergence of geography, abundant rivers, raw materials, human knowledge, and skilled labor, Michigan is perfectly situated to help think more creatively about transportation. Cars are currently one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gases, but they don’t have to be the only way to get around our state. And they’re not the only things that can be produced in Michigan.

So what’s the Next Idea?

What if we designed and built infrastructure and components to create a network of electric trains that connect Michigan’s highly livable small towns to Michigan’s high-paying centers of enterprise, say Tecumseh and Brighton to Ann Arbor; and Holland, Muskegon and Saranac to Grand Rapids?

This might sound like a huge, impossible undertaking, but we actually have the parts in place.

I visited the surrounding small towns in Washtenaw, Lenawee and Livingston counties and found former automotive and small-engine plants with available skilled labor, robust power grids, locations near rail lines, and highly cooperative local governments.

Michigan already has a legacy of inter-city connectivity. We once relied on an electrified transportation system from 1890-1920, when interurban rail cars carried passengers and freight between Detroit and Muskegon, Bay City, and Toledo and all of the towns in between.

This history, plus Michigan’s unique geography, makes electric-powered mobility a natural fit.

In addition, our small towns already support larger industrial and technology hubs. In 2008, I was looking at industrial space near Ann Arbor’s research and engineering treasure troves for a client’s new advanced materials assembly plant. The experience was eye opening.

I visited the surrounding small towns in Washtenaw, Lenawee and Livingston counties and found former automotive and small-engine plants with available skilled labor, robust power grids, locations near rail lines, and highly cooperative local governments. Integrating these localities via affordable public transit could allow for a more dynamic regional economy, with workers and materials easily and cleanly zipping from one place to another.

Of course, one barrier to electric mass transit is cost. Even though many people are betting that electrified transportation is the answer to carbon reduction and reining in climate change, the parasitic losses in long electric lines are huge. Enormous energy has to be loaded into long, high-tension power lines for small amounts of power to trickle out. Long lines favor coal or nuclear power.

However, there is a potential solution.

Short power lines deliver most of the power they ship, so less power needs to be generated, which suddenly makes hydroelectric power look interesting.

Our state has a high center geological spine running up the Lower Peninsula. It’s what has created the long rivers flowing from deep within our forests to the Great Lakes. Therefore, most of Michigan’s small towns have one or more millponds surviving from the 19th century that could accommodate a hydroelectric plant with year-round output. And many of our most populous towns are about 15 miles away or less from a similar town — another 19th   century creation — the perfect distance for push-pull electrified transportation.

Putting all the pieces together is a no-brainer. In its available factories, with its available skilled labor and natural resources, Michigan could produce fully assembled, modern freight and passenger electric trains with advanced features such as on-board electric commuter car charging and WiFi, and sell them to a global market. Michigan could also produce advanced hydro generators and low parasitic-loss power lines. You ride the train, entertain yourself or advance your career, and arrive with a fully charged personal electric car or delivery truck.

The switch to hydroelectric rail from carbon-powered cars would surpass a transportation goal of cutting kilowatt hour-per-task by 75 percent. It ends the societal catastrophe of a now typical 8-10 hour-a-week deprivation of sitting in gridlock while trying to get to work. Yet it continues the freedom of personal transportation at either end of the journey. It takes what we have learned from the automotive industry and helps us create a new economic boom to offset the loss of that industry.

In other words, it’s not a bad idea to take a moment and consider.

Hydroelectric-powered rail may be a lofty goal, but it also demonstrates a way to look for new ideas. It’s easy to forget our state’s rich history of leveraging our incredibly diverse assets to become world leaders in timber, mining, agriculture, furniture, and, of course, mechanization.

We didn’t make the world’s first car, or first airplane, or first tank, or first submarine, or first manned rocket, but in our history we made the best of each of these in its time. Creative mastery of the intersections is where you find all of the leverage. And Michigan has more intersections than most.

Lawrence Dolph is the founder & managing director of RFD Insight, a consulting firm based in Ann Arbor. 

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