LANSING, Mich. – Two alternative energy companies planning to buy a closed Ford Motor Co. factory near Detroit want to convert it into the country's largest renewable energy park, with at least 2,800 workers building storage batteries, solar panels and possibly wind turbines.
The proposed $725 million project outlined to state lawmakers Wednesday would be a coup for a state in desperate need of jobs. Michigan, with the highest unemployment rate in the nation, hopes to become a major player in the green economy.
"It's not just that our city needs it or our county needs it. Our state needs it," said Kevin Hinkley, the mayor of Wixom, where the plant would be located. "We need to look at the new frontier."
Xtreme Power of Kyle, Texas, and Clairvoyant Energy of Santa Barbara, Calif., said that if state tax incentives and federal loans are approved, they will purchase and refurbish the sprawling 320-acre Wixom Assembly Plant 25 miles northwest of Detroit, which was closed in 2007 as part of Ford's restructuring after churning out cars for 50 years.
Legislative committees on Wednesday began passing the tax breaks, which must be put in place quickly because Xtreme and Clairvoyant face a Sept. 14 deadline to apply for federal loan guarantees for renewable energy projects.
Less than half of the 4.7 million square feet of building space would be used to make the companies' own products; the rest would be leased to suppliers and other renewable energy companies. The companies also are looking to add a university facility on site to conduct research and train engineers and other highly skilled workers.
Xtreme Power CEO Carlos Coe said the "vast majority" of hires would be people already living in Michigan, including those with a manufacturing background.
"They have a good base of knowledge to start from," he said. "What we're going to teach them to do is build something completely different."
Xtreme and Clairvoyant officials said they like the Wixom factory because it has a rail line, a big electricity grid, large buildings and is close to a major interstate, making it easier to bring in supplies and ship out products.
Xtreme makes large-scale energy storage and management systems for utilities, wind farms and manufacturers. The batteries can store energy during the night that can be used in the day, for example.
Clairvoyant makes solar power stations. It is helping build the world's largest rooftop solar plant at a General Motors Corp. factory in Spain.
Xtreme would hire 2,500 workers at Wixom between late 2011 and 2014, with the potential to create another 1,500 supplier-related jobs at or near the plant. Clairvoyant, whose manufacturing partner would be Switzerland-based Oerlikon Solar, could hire 300 employees starting in late 2011 and add another 700 later if business is good.
"It's a massive employment opportunity," said Phil Horlock, chairman and CEO of Ford's real estate arm, which has been in talks with the energy companies for nine months.
Clairvoyant, which plans to move its headquarters to Wixom, said it ultimately could make 2.4 million solar panels a year at the facility.
Other projects, including an amusement park, have been proposed for the site. But officials called the energy park a better deal because jobs there could pay an average $40,000 a year and the plant would not have to be leveled, bringing jobs and tax revenue sooner.
"They're making full use of the infrastructure Ford built over the years," Horlock said.
Officials said before the companies submit their federal loan applications, Michigan must approve $100 million in refundable tax credits for advanced battery production and a $25 million tax break for solar-based manufacturing — along with increasing the number of job-creation tax credits from the Michigan Economic Growth Authority.
A House committee passed the $100 million battery credit Wednesday. A Senate panel voted to boost the number of MEGA credits this year, though some disagreements must be resolved. Granholm has warned that the Wixom project and others are in jeopardy because Michigan is out of incentives with four months left in the year.
The Ford factory's peak employment was nearly 5,500 in 1973. About 1,100 worked there two years ago.