In Detroit, a fleet of shiny cars shimmied off the assembly lines at Henry Ford's first factory, opened in 1903. Nearly a decade earlier, Ransom E. Olds had sealed Detroit's fate as Motor City when he started building the Oldsmobile, a brand bought by the new company, General Motors, in 1908.
A hundred years later, a lot has changed. Once the epicenter of modern car construction, Michigan‘s downward spiral started a few decades ago with downsizing and factory closures. Although plants are still operational, the northern state now has the highest unemployment rate in the country.
But things might be starting to change.
The century-old Vehicle City arch still stands in downtown Flint, a place made famous by Michael Moore in his documentary about GM plant closures and the resulting loss of some 30,000 jobs. But these days, a different sort of project is in the works, one of many hinting at a new direction for the former Auto State.
This spring, State Governor Jennifer Granholm announced a partnership between the city and Swedish Biogas International to begin producing biogas from waste removed from the city's wastewater treatment plant. A recognized global leader in renewable energy, Sweden meets more than 65 percent of their heating needs with fuel derived from biomass waste. The Flint-based project - which will fuel cars and generate electricity - also involves the partnership of Kettering University, an educational institution first founded in 1919 as the School of Automotive Trades.
Other alternative energy projects are popping up all over the state. In Alpena, in Northern Michigan, a foundry that once made castings for the auto industry closed in 2007. A few months later, a company came forward with a plan to purchase the facility to make castings for the wind energy market. The new plant will create three times as many jobs as were lost. In Greenville, Michigan, the closure of an Electrolux plant that moved to Mexico meant the loss of nearly 3,000 jobs. But the world's largest manufacturer of thin film solar products swept in - thanks to the state's generous incentive package - and set up shop.
Several other projects are in various stages of discussion, including a deal that would turn waste from a paper mill in the Upper Peninsula into an annual 13 million gallons of liquid biofuel, construction of a cellulosic wood-ethanol plant, and possible expansion of the Hemlock Semiconductor Corporation, the world's leading producer of polycrystalline silicon (a component of photovoltaic cells used to produce solar energy).
Michigan once led the way in creating machines that revolutionized everyday life, so it makes sense that the state would be on the forefront of industry looking to change the world once again. After all, as the bearers of the brunt of the loss of car culture, defining, polishing and mining gold from green is their best hope. Luckily, this time around, their factories are producing a product we can all get behind.