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Can Detroit go green?

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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.

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