Advanced Battery Show Comes to Michigan

  • David Salguero from Mission Motors with the Mission electric superbike. (Photo by Rebecca Williams)

A lot of people are looking at advanced batteries as the next big industry for the state of Michigan. Especially things like lithium ion batteries that are in your cell phone and laptop… and power most electric cars. Right now there are 17 Michigan companies either producing – or planning to produce – advanced batteries.

And so – with all the buzz about batteries – the Battery Show came to Novi this week.

It’s an international trade show… and the industry’s so new, this is only the second time the show has been held.

“We have critical mass here in Michigan around the battery industry. We are globally significant now.”

That’s Nick Cucinelli. He helps researchers at the University of Michigan build start-up companies around technologies they invent. He’s really into advanced batteries… and the promise they hold for the way we’ll use energy in the future.

“One of the things you’ve probably noticed over the past 10-15 years is the length of time you can operate your laptop or your phone has increased dramatically.”

He says that kind of innovation continues.

In a lot of ways, the Battery Show is really meant for people who already know a lot about advanced batteries. There are scientists here who are working to make better batteries. There are guys here who build battery factories. And people who recycle batteries.

But there are also some flashier things to see – like the Jeep Renegade concept vehicle.

“Which looks like a cross between a very large Miata and the bottom end of a Jeep. It’s a diesel electric hybrid, which ten years ago people said made no sense but they’re coming now.”

And… Nick Cucinelli shows me his favorite thing at the show… the electric superbike.

“I’m a big motorcycle guy. This looks like a Mission bike. These are tearing up the electric bike racing circuit, as I understand it, and if these guys aren’t careful, this bike’s going to disappear today.” (laughs)

He says electric motorcycle technology is coming along… and there are a few start-up companies in Michigan that want to make them.

David Salguero is the guy showing off the electric superbike. He’s from Mission Motors in San Francisco.

“This technology is going to be increasingly coming out into the mainstream. The Prius came out 10 years ago; that was the first mainstream hybrid vehicle. This year, the first mainstream fully electric cars are starting to come along; you’re only going to see this technology improving. There’s going to be very exciting things happening in the electric vehicle space in the coming years.”

But hybrids and electric vehicles still make up less than one percent of the cars on the road. And the battery technology that drives those vehicles still has a ways to go.

Nick Cucinelli says the industry is trying to make car batteries lighter and more energy dense. That means you’ll be able to go farther on a single charge.

“Really what everybody’s focusing on is increasing the range of the vehicle and also, and this is very relevant to us in Michigan, figuring out how to make sure that vehicle performs consistently across a wide range of temperatures. You will not get the range you expect from an electric vehicle when it’s 20 degrees Fahrenheit in Michigan. It’s not going to go as far.”

Cucinelli says the battery industry and the auto industry are working on that together.

He says one thing’s for sure… the way we use energy will change.

“Who knows what our cell phones are going to be able to do for us five years from now. I can guarantee you they’re going to require more energy and power. There may come a time when batteries can’t keep pace with that and we have to look at generating electricity on the fly with a small fuel cell. So you’d be carrying a little bit of fuel and generating electricity on the fly.”

And in fact… he says that’s not terribly pie in the sky. There are people working with those teeny tiny fuel cells right now for phones and laptops.

This story was informed by the Public Insight Network.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Study on BPA and Behavior & Energy Cooperatives

  • Bisphenol-A is used in the linings of most metal food and drink cans. (Photo courtesy of Sun Ladder at Wikimedia Commons)

Bisphenol-A or BPA – is a chemical that has been used for more than 40 years in all kinds of food and beverage packages. It’s used in the lining on the inside of most metal cans. It can leach out of those packages and get into food and drinks. More than a hundred peer-reviewed studies have linked bisphenol-A to health problems. Recent studies have shown subtle effects of low doses of BPA in lab animals.

There have also been a few studies of BPA in humans… including a study just published in the journal Pediatrics.

Joe Braun is a research fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health. He’s one of the authors of the study. His team has been following a group of more than 240 mothers and their children for the past five years.

“So what we found is that gestational bisphenol-A exposures, the mother’s exposure during pregnancy, were associated with behavior problems with the girls of these mothers at three years of age.”

Higher levels of BPA were associated with slightly worse behaviors in girls… such as aggression and hyperactivity. He says boys did not appear to be affected in the same way.

Braun says they controlled for a number of factors… such as household income and smoking.

He says BPA acts like the hormone estrogen, so the chemical might interfere with brain development in fetuses.

“There was a review done in 2008 by the National Toxicology Program, and I was not a part of that review, that seemed to suggest the most sensitive end points might be behavioral development and also that early life exposure during pregnancy and infancy or early childhood might be the most important. But right now, the human studies don’t really provide us a clear answer on that because we just don’t have enough of them to know.”

The Food and Drug Administration regulates the use of BPA in food and beverage containers.

The FDA says it has some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and young children.

The FDA did not make anyone available for an interview, but in an email statement, a spokesperson said FDA scientists continue to monitor and evaluate new data on BPA as it becomes available… and they say they will carefully review the new study.


(music sting)

This is the Environment Report.

There’s been a lot of talk about constructing a new coal burning power plant in Rogers City. This week, voters in Northeast Michigan could have some say in the future of that proposed plant. Aebra Coe has more:

Many people in northern Michigan get their power from energy cooperatives.

The cooperatives are member owned and if you buy your power from them, you can vote for who sits on the board. Generally, people who sit on the boards of these cooperatives are in favor of the coal plant in Rogers City.

But in August, a vocal opponent of the coal plant was elected to sit on the board of one utility. Another is on the ballot this week.

Wayne Vermilya says he opposes the new coal plant because of mercury emissions and he says it will raise the cost of electricity. He points out that several electric cooperatives in the area have already spent $20 million researching the feasibility of the plant.

“They’re going to make a major financial commitment here at some point, and it’s going to be big, or they’re going to have to decide to back away from it and learn their lesson.”

A report by the Michigan Public Service Commission calls the plant unneeded. It projects an increase in electricity bills by an average $77 a month per household.

There are two other candidates running against Wayne Vermilya for the seat on the board. Neither of the other two candidates has come out as being opposed to the plant.

Allan Berg is the incumbent. He did not make himself available for a recorded interview. But, in an email statement he said the electric cooperatives are still figuring out how much the new plant would cost.

He said until that phase is complete, he doesn’t think it is possible to know what the price of electricity would be.

For the Environment Report, I’m Aebra Coe.

Drinking Water Safety & Green Building Architect

  • Detroit owns and operates the water system that serves more than three million people in southeast Michigan. (Photo by Alex Anlicker, Wikimedia Commons)

It looks like a system that monitors drinking water for at least three million people in southeast Michigan will stay online for another year. But policymakers are still searching for a long-term solution. Sarah Cwiek reports:

The monitoring system gives early alerts if chemical spills are detected—so it keeps contaminants out of the drinking water system.

The system was in danger of shutting down when federal and state dollars ran out. But officials from Macomb and St. Clair counties have each come up with enough money to keep the system going for another year.

Macomb County Commission Chair Kathy Vosburg says a long-term solution will likely mean a small consumer fee.

“Consumers are very willing to pay for that, it comes out to be something like 50 cents to a dollar per household per year.”

But implementing that would take cooperation from the many different cities that send out water bills–and the city of Detroit, which owns and operates the whole drinking water system.

For the Environment Report, I’m Sarah Cwiek.

(music bump)

If you want to build a new home, you want an architect who can take your lifestyle and design a home around it. When it comes to building an environmentally-friendly house, you might even want someone who challenges you a little. Lester Graham recently met someone like that:

I was at the U.S. Green Building Council’s annual conference earlier this month to moderate a panel on America’s oldest net-zero energy home. That house happens to be here in Michigan and owned by Matt Grocoff. Matt wanted me to meet one of the architects leading the green building movement. His name is Eric Corey Freed.

As we talked to Freed at the conference… I wondered if people knew what they were getting into when they decided to build green…

“I think most people just assume I’m going to slap solar on it and be done.”

Solar. Yeah, it’s the sexy add-on that everyone seems to want. But Freed says solar is way too expensive unless first the house is built to be as energy efficient as possible. That means basic things… like proper insulation… which is not so sexy.

“Well, I think insulation is sexy, frankly. I mean, I think everybody should get naked and roll around in it. Not in the fiberglass! Because that could hurt. Maybe the recycled cotton one, that’d be pretty cozy. But remember, to me insulation is like chocolate: the more you have the better it is. So just bring it on.”

Freed used to spend a lot of time trying to educate his clients, explain why he’s using certain materials. These days… he doesn’t do that so much.

“ (laugh), I just force a lot of things automatically. It just seems stupid to ask permission, ‘Is it okay if we don’t put cancer-causing products in the building? Is that alright? Is it okay if we make an energy-efficient building?’ You just start to feel like a moron after a while, asking that question. So, I just stopped asking. And so now every project gets a whole slew of things automatically and everybody’s happy.”

Freed says –hey- he’s a professional… they have to trust him. But, there are some limits.

“If we’re going to do something that’s going to affect their daily experience – composting toilets –which are great, by the way- I have to ask them. Because, otherwise they’re going to be a little freaked-out the fist time they go to the bathroom.”

So, Eric Corey Freed has to find a balance with his cutting-edge ideas and what a customer feels he/she can live with.

On the other hand, Matt Grocoff is trying to get everyone to start fresh. Start questioning all the things they do that affects consumption at home.

“Eric’s limited by right now he’s got to convince a client with a certain amount of budget. It’s easy to convince someone to put in motion sensor light switches, to put in LED lighting, to put in insulation and all these other things. It’s much harder to talk to people about what’s next. What I want to do is have people look in every direction. Why am I using a freezer when outside it’s already freezing. So, if we look back and say, ‘Wait. People used to store their fruits and vegetables in a root cellar. That was free energy.”

Grocoff says it’s not always about the latest gadgetry… sometimes you just have to think about what you’re doing.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

And that’s the Environment Report for today. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Beekeepers Still Struggling With Colony Collapse Disorder

  • Some of Ted Elk’s hives are buzzing with bees and honey. (Photo by Julie Grant)

Michigan beekeepers are continuing to lose huge numbers of bees. They join beekeepers from around the country – and the world – who have been dealing with what’s called Colony Collapse Disorder. It’s been around for five years now. Julie Grant visited with some beekeepers, and reports that scientists and the government don’t agree on what should be done to help them:

(sound of bees buzzing)

Ted Elk is checking out some of his hives. They’re on the backside of a corn field, tucked away in the brush. The colorful boxes are stacked on top of each other.

Some hives are buzzing with activity. He pulls out a comb and scrapes the side:

“And that is all goldenrod honey. See how yellow that is?”

I want to eat it. It’s almost irresistible. But not all the hives look this good.

“Here’s one that’s not gonna make it through winter. It’s light, there’s no bees, there’s no weight to it.”

There’s honey on the comb. But almost no bees.

Elk suspects this hive has colony collapse disorder. There aren’t dead bees around. They’re just gone.

Elk has seen this before. Last winter, he lost 250 hives – and thousands of dollars. When Elk first started keeping bees, he might lose five or six percent in the winter. But nationwide, a 30 percent winter bee loss is average nowadays.

Researchers still aren’t sure exactly what’s causing Colony Collapse Disorder. But they do know there’s a lot of stress on bees. Beekeepers take their hives all over the country – to Florida to pollinate oranges, to California for almonds, to New York for apples, and elsewhere. The beekeepers take the bees honey, and often feed them cheap high fructose corn syrup, or nothing at all. Plus, they can have mites and bacteria. And there are 28 viruses that can affect bees.

Michael Hansen is the Michigan state apiarist. He says all these problems are cumulative.

“It’s like when you get a cold. And then there’s another virus takes over and then there’s a fever, but maybe you had problems with lungs or heart, and all these things start to build up.”

Beekeepers manage for these things. But the bees are not getting better.

Some research is starting to show that the problems of bees may be largely beyond the beekeepers control: people are using more chemicals that are toxic to bees.

James Frazier is an entomologist at Penn State University. He and his team have found the average hive has seven different pesticides.

Frazier says a few years before the collapses started, chemical companies started selling a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. And they’ve become really popular. They’re safer for human health than the older chemicals, and they do a good job killing unwanted insects on farm fields and home lawns. But he says they also kill bees.

“ Just because it’s safer for humans doesn’t mean it’s necessarily safer for bees or other pollinators. And that’s where this particular class of neonicotinoids has surfaced to the top, because they are exquisitely toxic for honey bees.”

Frazier says neonicotinoids and other pesticides interfere with the bees ability to learn, to navigate, and to fight off disease. He says that might explain why the bees disappear.

Some researchers and activists are calling on the U.S. to limit these chemicals. France, Germany, Italy and other countries have all put restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids.

Kaplan: “The problem is – based on what evidence?”

Kim Kaplan is the lead spokesperson on Colony Collapse Disorder for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. She says the USDA did a major survey of honeybee colonies and looked for pesticides.

“No class of pesticide is correlating with the incidence of CCD. How do you prove that a class of pesticide should be banned or more regulated for causing CCD?”

But a number of university researchers say the federal government might be overlooking the interaction of new pesticides with older bee diseases. New research in France shows that synergy can kill bees.

For the Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

Army Corps to Turn Up Juice on Carp Barrier

  • Army Corps of Engineers Project Manager Chuck Shea at the electric barrier system in Romeoville, Illinois. (Photo by Rebecca Williams)

Asian carp have been making their way up the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers toward the Great Lakes for decades. Bighead and silver carp are the species people are the most concerned about.

Government officials are trying to keep the carp out of Lake Michigan. One of the main methods they’re using is electrical shock. There’s a man-made canal near Chicago that connects the Mississippi River system with Lake Michigan. And on that canal is a system of three underwater electric barriers built by the Army Corps of Engineers.

I recently had a chance to visit the electric barriers. You can’t see the actual barriers, because the electrodes are underwater. But the Army Corps invited me into the control room of Barrier 2B. It looks about like you’d guess – lots of computers and gauges. There are a couple large mounted Asian Carp on the shelves.

Chuck Shea is a project manager with the Army Corps.

He says the barriers repel fish by emitting very rapid electric pulses into the water… which, if you’re a fish, is not a whole lot of fun.

“The idea is, as a fish swims in, the further it goes it’s getting a bigger and bigger shock and it realizes going forward is bad, it’s uncomfortable, and it turns around and goes out of its own free will and heads back downstream.”

The electric bill for this barrier runs between $40,000 and $60,000 a month.

Next week, the Corps is planning to crank up the juice on two of those barriers. They’ll be increasing the voltage, the pulse rate and how long those pulses last. They’re doing this to try to keep smaller Asian carp from getting through the electrical field.

“I think people sometimes think off the bat that big fish are tougher ones to deal with but actually with this electrical technology, bigger fish are easier to scare away than smaller fish.”

So… smaller fish are less likely to be bothered by the electrical shock… and theoretically… they could get through the barrier more easily than big fish.

The Corps said in a press release that they haven’t detected any small Asian carp near the barriers, but they want to turn up the settings to try to stop those smaller fish, just in case.

Chuck Shea says they’ve tested the higher settings on fish as small as two inches long.

So… the question is… whether really tiny Asian carp could get through the barriers even at the higher settings.

Jim Garvey is a fish ecologist at Southern Illinois University.

“It should block fish that are two inches or bigger. The big issue is when a carp is a juvenile they become free swimming at about half an inch or so. At that point, yeah, they could potentially move through. Now will they? We basically need to do a lot more ground work to figure that out.”

The other big question is whether there are already live Asian carp in Lake Michigan.

The Army Corps and scientists from the University of Notre Dame have repeatedly found DNA samples from silver and bighead carp above the electric barriers in the Chicago waterway.

David Lodge is a biologist at Notre Dame. He says these findings indicate the presence of carp near and possibly in Lake Michigan.

“The most troubling result we’ve had so far is finding DNA in Calumet Harbor. Which is depending on how you define it that’s either Lake Michigan or the Calumet River, we’re splitting hairs at that point. To that extent there’s evidence fish have certainly had access and perhaps there are some individuals in Lake Michigan.”

He says the presence of DNA does not necessarily mean there’s a live carp nearby. But he says it’s the most likely explanation.

The electric barriers on the Chicago canal system are getting a lot of attention – and money right now. But the Army Corps is also looking at 18 other possible waterways that Asian carp might use to get into the Lakes.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

More Ups and Downs for Salmon in Great Lakes

  • Dale Wilkinson with his salmon. (Photo by Lester Graham)

Charter fishing in Michigan represents a $20 million a year industry. But the number of charter trips on Lake Huron declined by almost 50 percent in the last decade – as the salmon fishery on the lake took a dive. And now the state has decided to end Chinook salmon stocking in most rivers along Lake Huron. Starting next spring, Chinook, or king salmon, will be stocked in just a few places in the northern part of the lake. Tom Kramer has more:

Salmon are not native to the Great Lakes.

They were introduced from the Pacific Ocean in the late ’60s and quickly became the most popular sport fish in the region.

Dramatic changes in the food web in Lake Huron caused by too many salmon and other exotic species like invasive mussels brought about the demise of the fishery around 2003.

That has been a huge economic blow to tourist towns along the coast but state officials say there’s nothing they can do to bring it back at this point.

One place the state hopes to keep a decent sport fishery for kings is in the Cheboygan River.

Todd Grischke manages Lake Huron for the Department of Natural Resources.

He says there might be more food for salmon out in the Straits of Mackinac.

“So there is a possibility that those fish that are planted there are finding forage that is not available to other parts of the lake to the south.”

But while Lake Huron is seeing the continuing collapse of its salmon fishery, it’s shaping up to be a banner year for salmon fishing in Lake Michigan.

Anglers are catching more big fish – a sign that there is more food for the salmon in the lake this year.

Boat launches on Betsie Bay, in Benzie County, are full of empty trailers; anglers are standing side-by-side on bridges over the Betsie River; and bait shops are bustling.

Jerry Kekal works at the Frankfort Tackle Box.

He’s looking at the results from this year’s Benzie Frenzy fishing tournament.

“See, so they had a lot of big fish, big fish. Look at that. 28. 28.”

As in 28 pounds.

That’s just the kind of year it’s been.

Dave Clapp is the manager at the Charlevoix Fisheries Research Station for the DNR.

They keep track of fish caught in Lake Michigan.

“A good number of 20-plus pounders and a few thirties thrown in around the lake. It’s definitely been a better year for bigger fish this year.”

Clapp says the bigger fish in Lake Michigan are thanks to a strong alewife hatch in 2010.

Alewives are an invasive fish that salmon like to eat.

Until this summer alewife numbers had been on the decline.

Those big salmon being caught now, they have been feeding on that strong class of alewives since last fall.

An Environment Report/Michigan Watch series: The Collapse of the Salmon Economy


“When there’s food like that around the fish really take advantage of that quickly. And they can put on the weight.”

Clapp says the size and health of salmon are closely tied to the alewife population. And he says it’s difficult to predict when another strong alewife year will come around again.

What helps set this year apart is how bad the fishing was for most people last year.

According to the DNR, 2010 was the lowest harvest of Chinook and Coho from Lake Michigan in the last decade.

So as word spread of the numbers and size of fish being caught this year, anglers from around the state have been heading north.

Mike Henry is up from Waterford.

He came north with some friends after hearing from his boss how good the fishing is this year.

Mike doesn’t consider himself to be a serious fisherman, but his boss gave him some advice that makes catching salmon on the Betsie River sound easy.

“He just told me to fish where he fishes, do everything he does and I’ll catch fish.”

As far as totals for the year, the DNR still has employees, creel clerks, they’re called, visiting boat launches and counting the salmon coming in.

And though it may turn out to be a good year for salmon fishing on Lake Michigan, experts who watch the fishery closely say what’s happening on Lake Huron could be a warning of what might happen throughout the Great Lakes.

For the Environment Report, I’m Tom Kramer in Benzie County.