Toledo Talk

Wall Street Journal article about Toledo area solar power companies

Excerpts from a Dec 18, 2007 Wall Street Journal article titled Toledo Finds the Energy To Reinvent Itself :

This city became famous in the last century for being one of North America's leading glass centers. The industry has been in decline since the 1980s, but Toledo hopes to be known for its glass again. This time, though, the glass is being coated with thin layers of chemicals to produce ecofriendly "solar cells."

Recently, Norm Johnston, a former executive at Toledo glass companies, showed how Solar Fields LLC, a start-up he runs, was leveraging the old glass industry. Walking to the back of a 22,000-square-foot former machine shop in the nearby suburb of Perrysburg, he patted the blue metal casing on a 100-foot-long production line, which his company has designed to coat sheets of glass heated to more than 1,100 degrees with chemicals to make solar cells.

There is similar activity at several other sites in this metropolitan area of 600,000. Companies from Phoenix-based First Solar Inc. to Xunlight Corp. are opening factories in and around Toledo to create electricity-producing "thin-film" solar panels on glass and other materials. While not rated as efficient as the more prevalent silicon-based solar cells, thin film has taken off in the last year because of soaring demand for alternative energy and a world-wide silicon shortage. It is also cheaper to make than silicon cells.

In addition to First Solar, which in 1999 built a factory in Perrysburg that now employs about 600, the University of Toledo is receiving state grants to expand its solar research and incubate thin-film spinoffs. So far, the university has incubated four solar start-ups, including Solar Fields, Xunlight, Innovative Thin Films Ltd. and Advanced Distributed Generation LLC. Toledo's Regional Growth Partnership, a nonprofit economic development group, is also using state grants to help fund solar and other alternative energy start-ups.

In Toledo, the repercussions of the new solar activity are already being felt. Pilkington North Pilkington North America Inc., a Toledo-based unit of Japan's Nippon Sheet Glass Co., has become a major supplier to First Solar, offsetting some of the business it lost in the traditional glass industry. Pilkington officials estimate thin-film sales have grown to about 10% of revenue for its American building products division, prompting the company to beef up a research division that had been undergoing cuts.

But clean tech isn't necessarily a panacea. Only about 5,000 solar jobs have been created in the last five years in Toledo. Meanwhile, the number of manufacturing jobs lost since the 1980s is in the tens of thousands. Cities like Toledo may also have trouble competing with domestic clean-tech hot spots like Silicon Valley, which are in closer proximity to venture capital sources. In addition, Toledo is competing against cheaper overseas locales. First Solar, for instance, is building four manufacturing plants in Malaysia. Company officials say the Perrysburg plant remains "critical" to the firm's future success.

Related: October 2007 Newsweek article about Toledo area solar power companies

created by jr on Dec 18, 2007 at 08:07:59 pm
updated by jr on Dec 21, 2007 at 10:41:53 pm
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