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Built on glass, northwest Ohio's Solar industry creates 5,000 new jobs

The Toledo riverfront features the Sun Obelisk by sculptor Dale Eldred. Photo Ben French
The Toledo riverfront features the Sun Obelisk by sculptor Dale Eldred. Photo Ben French
The sun has been good to northwest Ohio.

A number of local alternative energy companies are turning sunlight into usable energy and, in turn, a gloomy economy into a brighter future. Sound like a cheesy government pamphlet? Not so fast.

More than 5,000 new jobs have materialized in the Greater Toledo area, thanks to an innovative handful of upstart solar energy companies, in the form of retailers, suppliers, researchers and installers. And the clincher? Most of them are still accepting applications.

If Toledo keeps up its momentum, solar panels will mean more than jobs and money. They might just make the Great Leap: from the cover of Dwell Magazine to a backyard near you.

Why Toledo?

Manufacturing has long been a staple in the Greater Toledo economy. The city's location, on Lake Erie at the mouth of the Maumee River, allowed it to grow rapidly with access to easy shipping lanes and highways.

When cars started rolling off the lines just north in Detroit, glass suppliers were needed quickly (think windshields). In Ohio, with unlimited and cheap natural gas (needed to melt silica), Toledo turned out to be a perfect geographical locale.

Industry insiders say the glass industry was the initial catalyst for getting the solar business primed, considering glass is a key component of solar panels. As the auto industry struggled in the 1980s, a few small investments were made to investigate the potential of photovoltaic manufacturing. No one paid that much attention.

But since then, the area has grabbed a decent chunk of the nation's solar business and hasn't let go. People are starting to take notice. Thanks to a cash infusion from local, state and federal governments, coupled with support from the University of Toledo, the solar industry is shining.

Most of the businesses operate just a 20-minute cruise south of Toledo along the Maumee River in nearby Perrysburg -- largely due to the mammoth footprints of land needed for solar fields.

The late Harold McMaster, "The Glass Genius," is widely credited as the key player and innovator of the industry. Known for inventing various types of tempered glass (for televisions and automobiles), McMaster also began experimenting with solar cells in 1984, launching a solar cell business soon afterward.

While McMaster saw few financial returns, the University of Toledo took notice of his cutting-edge work.

Thanks to a grant by the State of Ohio's Edison Technology Incubator Program to UT and two industrial partners Solar Cells and Glasstech a niche industry was born.

And it warmed up quickly.

First Solar is the big kid on the block it's also the first kid on the block. Formed in 1999 as a spin-off of McMaster's original brainchild, the company is now the world's largest manufacturer of commercially viable solar panels.

Although now headquartered in Arizona, First Solar still manufactures all of its U.S. panels in northwest Ohio, and employs more than 800. In September, the company signed a breakthrough agreement with the Chinese government to plant a 2,000-megawatt solar field in the Mongolian desert -- expected to be one of the largest solar project undertakings to date.

Just last year the company unveiled a 10-megawatt solar facility outside of Las Vegas. Each one of the 167,000 panels was manufactured at the Ohio plant.

"Toledo has been traditionally the glass capital of Ohio, and that's why we chose that location," says First Solar spokeswoman Melanie Friedman. "We wanted to be close to that source. Also, Toledo has a great workforce there A lot of those skills are applicable to the solar industry."

Toledo's rocketing solar industry also has given smaller start-up companies a chance to grow.

Xunming Deng, who launched Xunlight Corp. with his wife in 2002 while a physics professor at the University of Toledo, started with a modest plan to manufacture thin, flexible solar cells created using sheets of stainless steel. Now, with 100-plus employees, the little-company-that-could continues to expand. Xunlight recently sold it first shipment back to UT for an advanced energy and innovation laboratory.

Meanwhile, Willard & Kelsey Solar Group, a new start-up set up by veterans from other local alternative energy firms, announced plans to begin mass commercial production of panels this year and hire as many as 400 people.

And this summer, California-based Sphere Renewable Energy Corp. announced plans to develop Buckeye Silicon at the University of Toledo's Center for Renewable Energy. Full-scale production is expected by the end of 2010.

Ancillary companies like Innovative Thin Films (ITF)are also expected to play a key role in the industry. ITF creates films that are applied to the face of solar panels -- rigid or flexible -- that serves as a repellent for dust and materials.

Only a small percentage of local residents use solar panels, so it's a given that most panels manufactured in Northwest Ohio are shipped elsewhere -- most likely to the west coast and Europe.

But that may change soon. The state of Ohio also is helping to create its very own market. In 2008, Gov. Ted Strickland signed an energy bill requiring 25 percent of all electricity to be produced by advanced or alternative energy sources by the year 2025.

"This will really help the solar business for the state of Ohio, manufacturers and installers," says Todd Armstrong of Xunlight. "The state of Ohio is one of the leading states pushing alternative energy, and has done a terrific job supporting us getting this off the ground."

Steven Weathers, CEO of the Regional Growth Partnership, estimates there are between 5,000 and 6,000 solar industry jobs, and that estimate is only expected to increase.

"This is really a budding industry for the state, and for this part of the country," says Weathers. "I expect to see an increase you'll see more suppliers, and more installers."
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