America needs to transform its energy system. The Great Lakes region possesses what may be the nation’s richest complex of innovation strengths--research universities, national and corporate research labs, and top-flight science and engineering talent.

Is there a deal to be done? There is.

To see the outlines check out the new policy brief we recently put out with Jim Duderstadt--the president emeritus of the University of Michigan--as part of Brookings’ Growth Through Innovation project and the Metro Program’s Great Lakes auto country initiative.

In the new brief, we propose a beautiful marriage of convenience in which a powerful national-regional partnership would be forged to put the Great Lakes region’s superb innovation capacity to work on the nation’s multiple energy crises and so, along the way, help reinvigorate the sagging Great Lakes economy.

To facilitate such a convergence of national need and regional capacity, our move is to take our earlier proposal for the creation of a national network of energy Discovery Innovation Institutes (e-DIIs) and bring it to ground in the Great Lakes region.

There in the Midwest, we note the presence of a truly incredible array of world-class innovation institutions and capabilities, running from the University of Illinois’ expertise in biofuels to Dow Corning’s production of leading silicon and silicone-based technologies in Michigan and Argonne National Laboratory’s work in energy storage systems, as well as Battelle efforts in energy efficiency. Building on the e-DII concept, the proposal is that the federal government strategically “flood the Great Lakes zone” through the creation of a series of multi-sectoral, market-driven energy research and innovation centers that would ramp up and accelerate the translational research necessary for the nation to foment clean energy breakthroughs and speed technology commercialization while also spurring the regional economy toward an urgent “green” transformation.

Along these lines, the brief argues that a series of roughly six of these energy centers, funded at total of $1 billion to $2 billion per year, could be located throughout the Great Lakes region based on local industry research priorities, university capabilities, and the market and commercialization dynamics of various technologies. For example, a southeastern Michigan collaboration involving the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, the University of Wisconsin and Ford, General Motors, and Dow Chemical could address the development of sustainable transportation technologies. A Chicago partnership of area universities, Argonne National Lab, and Exelon and Boeing could focus on sustainable electricity generation and distribution. A Columbus group including Ohio State University and Battelle Memorial Institute could address technologies for energy efficiency.

As to the goal and process for such a ramp-up, we say each center should be selected by a competitive federal award process to serve several functions:

  • Link together campus-based, industry-based, and lab-based researchers in a “hub-spoke” architecture to limit duplication of efforts and enhance collaboration
  • Maximize the volume and speed of technology
  • Stimulate regional economic development through cross-sector knowledge spillovers and information exchange; and 
  • Collaborate with K-12 schools, community colleges, regional universities and workplace training initiatives to educate future scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs

If built out, the impact of a Great Lakes network of regional energy centers could be transformational and initiate a new way for the federal government to work productively with regional partners. Let’s go for it. This is one instance in which investing in the struggling Great Lakes region has nothing to do with special pleading and everything to do with the national imperative of cleaning up America’s too-dirty energy system.