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Posted on Thu, Aug 20, 2009 : 6:20 a.m.

University of Michigan's Stephen Forrest: 'We've got to commit to something'

By Nathan Bomey

Stephen Forrest doesn’t mind picking winners.

In fact, he thinks it’s imperative.

Forrest, the University of Michigan’s vice president for research and chairman of Ann Arbor SPARK, is a fervent proponent of leveraging university technology to reconstruct Michigan’s economy on the backbone of alternative energy and other technologies.

Michigan’s attraction of $1.3 billion in battery grants from the U.S. Department of Energy in July marked a key step in the state’s economic revival plan, he said.


The grants came after the state distributed some $700 million in its own tax incentives for battery companies.

Some critics have questioned whether the state should be distributing heavy tax incentives to industries such as the startup vehicle battery world. But Forrest argues that doing nothing would be worse.

“Companies and society have to prioritize somewhere,” he said.

Meanwhile, the university is already starting work on a new solar energy research center funded by a 5-year, $19.5 million Energy Frontier Research Grant from DOE.

Forrest, a solar energy expert himself, recently spoke with’s Nathan Bomey: How significant was the battery grants announcement?

Forrest: It’s huge. It’s a reinvestment in the state - and it really all has to do with reinventing the car, the vehicle.

That becomes very important, because we’re at a time where we have to reinvent the vehicle. And we have to do it here in Michigan or it’s going to happen elsewhere.
It’s the way we really start to lay the foundation for a new economy.

The university has obviously long had research expertise in these areas. How can the university contribute real advancements that make a difference?

Although the economy is in a significant downturn in Michigan, we have targeted hiring six or seven people in the battery area.

That’s a high priority. Building that workforce is crucial, so we can do the invention that is building the knowledge.

We not only can reinvent the battery, but we can also build the workforce simultaneously. We can work with our industrial partners, so everything starts to come together.
It really is the key to the new car, the new transportation paradigm.

Does the state need to get away from the auto image?

It has to definitely broaden. The auto image isn’t helping us and hasn’t for sometime.
It doesn’t mean that we can’t rebuild our auto industry. I believe we can. We have to form it on a different base than we have been.

It’s not going to be large-scale manufacturing. Those jobs are moving south, that’s all there is to it.

If we are only an automotive state, we will be stuck with the same cycles we’ve always been stuck with, which have never been pleasant.

Some critics think we’re over-committing to batteries right now, considering that the market is still really small. Any thoughts on that?

We’ve got to commit to something. These are building sectors. Companies and society have to prioritize somewhere.

You can’t be all things to all people, and we’re building on a very firm base. We have the engineering expertise here, if it’s anywhere. Renewable energy in general, of which batteries is a piece, is a very good place to be for this state, I believe.

With the energy frontier research grant, how pleased are you about that? It’s your area - are you going to be logging any hours?

Yes, I think the biggest opportunity renewable energy has is solar.

You can e-mail’s Nathan Bomey at, call him at (734) 623-2587 or follow him on Twitter.


Ravella Ryder

Thu, Aug 20, 2009 : 8:41 p.m.

I hope "we just have to do something" isn't the plan for the old Pfizer site. I'm not sure I see what the plan is here. Anyway, how can Forrest be the VP at U-M AND be the head of SPARK? How does he make decisions in the best interest of each when there could be a potential for them to have divergent views? Ravella

Nathan Bomey

Thu, Aug 20, 2009 : 10:06 a.m.

Despite a cloudy climate, solar energy can play a role in Michigan's future energy picture. Note that Germany, which has a very similar cloud ratio to Michigan, is the world-leader in solar panel adoption. Here's a piece I wrote about how improvements in photovoltaic solar panel technology could make it a quite viable option in Michigan: And, of course, Michigan's growing solar energy industry doesn't need sunny skies to be successful:


Thu, Aug 20, 2009 : 9:58 a.m.

Improving battery technology is a plus. I have been a proponent of electric for almost all areas. Electric devices tend to have fewer parts, run quieter, and tend to be more reliable. Better batteries are part of that equation. One question I would pose do ultra capacitors fit in this equation. I read this technology may be a good companion with batteries i.e energy storage. Will solar ever be a big win in MIchigan? I would love to fill my south facing roof with affordable panels that would power back to the grid or better charge high energy density batteries at home.

Ray Seghers

Thu, Aug 20, 2009 : 9:36 a.m.

Thank you. I agree that the state (and by that I mean all of us) needs to commit.