In the heart of Detroit, surrounded by erosion and boarded-up businesses, a major construction project is nearing completion. Growing in the city center is TechTown, a new alternative energy think tank that is primed to become a hub for “shared knowledge and ideas,” a place where students, educators, businesses and researchers focus on how to integrate alternative energy options into the community.

TechTown is more than just a few blocks of buildings; it is a significant business hot spot with an alternative energy theme. As the TechTown mantra goes; it is the place where minds and means intersect.

TechTown includes apartments, condos, restaurants, schools, services, entertainment, retail and grocery stores. In the middle stands a new alternative energy center, a 100,000-square-foot incubator with state-of-the-art accommodations.

NextEnergy, a state of Michigan alternative energy consortium, has built NextEnergy Center and its Microgrid on part of the Wayne State University campus in the heart of TechTown. The facility will house some of the latest alternative energy technologies and fuels and will have its own alternative power sources in the event of grid failure.

NextEnergy vice president and chief technology officer Michael Quah describes the program as a holistic approach to energy. The center will research many forms of alternative energy and will include research and education, administration and exhibition.

“It is very synergistic,” Quah said.

Ferndale Electric Co., Ferndale Mich., helped build this center, which is slated to open this month. Their task: wire the NextEnergy Center and the adjacent Microgrid building. The alternative energy technology center contains a 45,000-square-foot auditorium, a showroom and a research area.

“It's quite an innovative building,” said Rick Gooley, Ferndale's project manager. “The idea is to showcase and research alternative energies, gases, [and] solar energy to show how electrical energy can be generated in different ways.”

Ferndale Electric came on board thanks to Barton Mallow and Jomar Building, the general contractors who teamed up to launch the project.

“We've done a lot of work with Barton Mallow on different projects, most often in the healthcare field and automotive jobs,” Gooley said.

Almost immediately, Ferndale Electric started work on three separate components.

“This is an alternative energy technology center,” Gooley said. “It will have a showroom facility for displaying different means of generating energy, an auditorium where classes and seminars can be held and a large research area to be used for future energy discoveries.”

The Microgrid, designed by DTE Energy Technologies, consists of a power pavilion with two levels, a basement and a first floor. The first floor houses five or six different types of generators.

“We will install these generators so that they can be easily disconnected and replaced as technology advances,” Gooley said. “The NextEnergy Microgrid will serve as a showcase and testing ground for new generators. In addition, it will, of course, generate some power from the building.”

Ferndale Electric used General Electric (GE) switchgear for both projects and collaborated with Siemens Fire Safety on the fire alarm system.

Work on the Microgrid and NextEnergy Center has had its challenges. Wiring was done using cable tray with open cable.

“There's not a lot of conduit work,” Gooley said. “We're just installing conduit to the cable tray so that the wire can be easily removed later and something different can be reinstalled.”

The Microgrid roof is covered with PV panels from which some of the facilities' power will be derived.

“We will be the first in the Detroit area to install this particular system,” said Gooley.

The system is built out of 16-foot-by-30-inch wide panels that look like large rubber mats. Ferndale Electric rolled out each panel and installed them to the roof. They then connected them with daisy-chain wiring that goes through an inverter in the basement to generate power. Work with this unfamiliar material required a week's extra training for his team, said Gooley.

“We found after a learning curve, that it went in quite quickly,” Gooley said. “The roof of the power pavilion is completely covered with PV panels.”

The PV system was not the only interesting part of the project. The Microgrid building has a very extensive grounding system.

“It's 5-foot-by-5-foot of 4/0 ground grid connected like one big screen,” Gooley said.

Since various fuels will be pumped through and housed there, the grounding makes the building that much more secure. To install the grounding system, the Ferndale Electric team had a chance to experiment with some new prepackaged labor-saving cad-welding products to expedite the installation.

“Everything has gone smoothly. Even the weather [was] decent,” said Gooley, who had eight men on the job with a peak of 10.

Before the June grand opening, NextEnergy had the support of at least six universities at publication time, with an interest in making projects funded by NextEnergy as part of their alternative energy curriculum. The curriculum included students from primary to university level.

Education is one of the most important aspects of the plan, Quah said, pointing out that they will be educating future scientists, engineers and technicians.

“The Microgrid is designed to run new technologies, not flash-in-the-pan technologies,” Quah said.

Technologies that have been through research and development can be tested at the Microgrid to see how well they will integrate with other technologies, power grids, etc.

“The NextEnergy Microgrid is designed to run new technologies, almost plug and play,” Quah said.

Its use will be constantly changing as new technology is tested there, he added.

At the NextEnergy Center, many future tenants of the building have very specific construction needs to accommodate their business or research and development. Much of those special needs have been worked into the construction plan, while modifications will probably be made before some of the tenants move in.

NextEnergy will be hosting a national power electronics conference in June, which might include observation of what is happening at NextEnergy Center.

“Our goal is to energize the country to think holistically about power,” Quah said.

He hopes the center will become a catalyst for meaningful growth and change, but acknowledges there are no “magic bullets.”

In addition, construction in an urban area rather than an undeveloped area shows environmental as well as economic responsibility.

“This would be easy to accomplish in a more rural environment, but in an urban environment, we are surrounded by development. More importantly, by working on urban renewal, we reduce the incessant conversion of rural farmland into industrial developments-a unique approach to land conservation,” Quah said.

By creating this plan through cooperation with public safety departments and other governing bodies in an urban area, the team at NextEnergy hopes they have created a template for others hoping to redevelop urban neighborhoods.

For Gooley, however, the greatest satisfaction in the project came from knowing they participated in something that will always be on the cutting-edge of electrical generation and research. EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.