Jim Croce's Culture Concept

The uplifting power of the possible filled the halls of Grand Valley State University yesterday as Michigan's future-oriented economic and thought leaders gathered in Grand Rapids. The attraction was a summit designed to plug manufacturing companies into the booming multi-billion-dollar renewable energy business through opportunities to make parts for wind turbines, solar arrays, and advanced fuel cells.

But the enthusiasm was tempered by the fact that, while Michigan claims it wants to lead global energy innovation, the state has yet to shift its policy and investment strategies to promote any fuel sources beyond nonrenewables like coal. That, experts say, is retarding the growth of perhaps the biggest opportunity Michigan has seen since the invention of the automobile.

Jim Croce, the CEO of NextEnergy, a nonprofit organization established by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, laid out the lucrative opportunities for energy innovation at the top of the event.

He also hammered home the incredible challenge now facing the Great Lakes State's ability to advance an energy agenda that helps keep rates affordable, the climate stable, and the world at peace. Here are excerpts of his remarks:

"What's holding us back in Michigan more than anything else is culture, and the way we're looking at the [renewable energy] industry," Mr. Croce said. "We need creative entreprenuers. Lots of them. They need to succeed and fail. We need dynamism. That's the secret to our success.

"Successful entrepreneurs need technology; an experienced, venture-backed CEO; and risk capital. If any one of those pieces are missing, we got a problem.

"We have pretty darn good technology in Michigan. We also have a lot of pretty smart engineers, scientists, and researchers doing a lot of really interesting development. But we tend to lack that man or woman who has made venture capitalists a lot of money in the past who can be counted on to make venture capitalists a lot money going forward. So that's our talent gap.

"But we also have this business culture bearing down on us that's seeking to extend the status quo. We're not embracing change. We're discouraging failure, lacking entrepreneurial dynamism. And we have obsolete energy and environmental policies that stifle demand and discourage capital investment [in renewables]. These are things that we're struggling with in the state.

"When we argue against the [Renewable Portfolio Standard]. When we argue against [Corporate Average Fuel Economy]. When we take on California and CO2 mandates, even though there may be good business reasons for our legacy industries to do that, the perception hurts us. We're viewed as a backwater, quite frankly. Why would I invest in a state that's fighting change? So culture is a big issue we need to come to grips with, we need to understand, and we need to work through it and be viewed as a more progressive state because in many ways we are more progressive. The preception is not great.

"At the same time we have this luring of the CEO's to the eco-friendly business culture. It's not just California, Massachussetts, and New York. We're talking about Wisconsin, Iowa, Pennsylvania. Relatively conservative states that have enacted proactive policies and are drawing new investment to their state. This is the competitive landscape we're fighting against.

"We need a more progressive regulatory framework. We need to look beyond the traditional means of regulating our utilities. We need to think more broadly, more holistically about diversfying the economy, improving our state balance of trade, and improving business competitiveness.

"We need to find ways to make money amidst all these transformational effects in our economy. We're either going to make money, or we're going to be left in the dust."