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Can Detroit go green?

In the race for the best green auto technology, Detroit is a slightly late entrant. But from battery innovation to re-training workers, the Motor City is going to give green a go.

By Sheena HarrisonContributor / October 12, 2009

Magna International Inc. Chairman Frank Stronach gets in the passenger seat of a Ford battery electric vehicle in June. The partnership is one of many by Detroit automakers aimed at taking part in a green automotive revolution.

Chris Wattie/Reuters

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DETROIT - Just as the auto industry was ripe for change in 1903 when Henry Ford set up Ford Motor Company in Detroit, carmakers again seem on the cusp of revolution.

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Hybrid and pure electric vehicles threaten to overthrow the dynasty of the old internal-combustion engine even as proposed greenhouse-gas legislation would undermine its supremacy. China, Japan, and South Korea are hard at work creating batteries for the green cars of the future. And so is Michigan.

Having spent more than $700 million in tax incentives since 2006 to attract, retain, and grow battery companies, the state is aiming to become the “advanced battery capital of the world.” There’s wide agreement here on the consequences.

“We’re faced with either finding new markets for those companies or losing them,” says Greg Main of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. “We can’t be a one-horse town any longer,” said Michael Robinet of auto forecaster CSM Worldwide in Northville, Mich.

But Detroit’s transition to greener automaking is by no means assured. US battery firms are late to the race. Even if their technology wins, there’s no guarantee that Detroit would beat out California or other states vying for supremacy.

Michigan does retain one advantage: a skilled workforce that knows a thing or two about mass-producing cars and car parts. “Those folks are some of the best workers the world has ever seen, and they deserve to have jobs,” says Keith Cooley, CEO of NextEnergy, a Detroit-based nonprofit research facility and business incubator for alternative-energy companies.

A six-minute drive from Ford Motor’s original plant sits NextEnergy’s 45,000-square-foot headquarters and research labs. The nonprofit is a key player in Michigan’s efforts to reinvent the auto industry and, by extension, itself.

NextEnergy is working with nearby Wayne State University as well as Macomb Community College to train workers for advanced electric-drive work via a $5 million Department of Energy grant awarded in August. The organization has also helped state officials vet alternative-energy companies that want to do business in Michigan, such as A123 Systems Inc., which won $249 million in stimulus money to make battery packs for hybrid and electric vehicles at two Michigan locations. In September, the Watertown, Mass., company went public and saw its stock soar 50 percent on its first trading day.