By: Nikia Washington
Toledo, long known as Glass City, earns the title of Solar Valley. The concept of renewable energy is spreading fast, as Toledo offers a home to new solar companies, ideas and efforts.
Death of Glass City
Toledo, a recognized portion of the Rust Belt and a key player in the auto industry, experienced a quick downward spiral at the turn of the century. Toledo’s unemployment rate has more than doubled in the last decade, reaching an 11.3 percent average in 2010. In the past 10 years, the nation’s unemployment rate increased by more than four percent, according to the United State Department of Labor.
Bill Stewart, special assistant to the mayor of Toledo, Michael P. Bell, explained Toledo took an economic dive due to its close ties with Detroit and auto production.
“Anything that happens bad to the autos, happens bad to Toledo,” Stewart said.
As reported by the Toledo Blade, the city lost more than 9,500 jobs between 2001 and 2004.
However, for the first time in years, Toledo’s economy recently showed an upward trend. President Obama visited the city’s Jeep plant in June of 2011 and announced an unemployment rate of 9.1 percent. The solar industry’s contribution to Toledo’s job market is a possible factor in the improvement.
What is Solar Energy
Solar power, as defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, is the energy received from the sun to create renewable energy.
Two types of solar technologies currently exist in the market: photovoltaic, which collects energy from the sun to provide electricity, and concentrated solar energy (solar thermal), which magnifies the intensity of the sun to create heat.
The solar thermal method uses the sun to warm an anti-freeze liquid in tubes called solar thermal collectors. The liquid is then transferred to a heating tank, commonly used for hot water and space heating. The photovoltaic method uses photovoltaic silicon cells, usually linked together to generate maximum power, to collect energy from the sun. A grid gathers the energy from the cells and then converts it to operational electricity.
Welcoming New Solar Companies
Late in the 1990s, a Toledo native gave birth to a company named First Solar. As reported by CNET News, Founder Harold McMaster previously worked with the glass industry during the 1940s and became an expert on tempered glass. In the 1980s, he experimented with the idea of solar energy and glass. In 1999, First Solar pioneered a goal to “provide an economically and environmentally viable alternative to peaking fossil-fuel electricity generation,” as presented on the company’s website.
First Solar provides solar services and products to businesses and organizations around the world, including China, Germany, and France.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), a research facet of the U.S. Department of Energy, regularly partners with First Solar.
“First Solar is one of the darlings of the solar world,” said Bill Scanlon, a public affairs representative for NREL.
First Solar now stands as one of the leading solar manufacturers in the world and one of the fastest growing, according to the company’s website. In addition to offices around the globe, one of the company’s three production facilities exists in the Toledo suburb of Perrysburg, the only First Solar production facility in North America.
In 2002, University of Toledo Professor Xunming Deng took a leave of absence to cofound solar manufacturer Midwest Optoelectronics, LLC. The company introduced a new form of lightweight, flexible photovoltaic solar technology.
The company was renamed Xunlight in 2006 and shipped its first solar modules in 2009. Xunlight is now Toledo’s second leading solar manufacturer.
Waterways, shipping lanes, railroad capacity, trucking access and the strong history with the glass industry make Toledo a strong prospect to solar companies.
“We’re not a huge city like Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles,” Stewart said. “But we’re a big enough city that has all the amenities.”
Toledo’s Solar Venues
With a growing amount of local solar manufacturing, Toledo venues are taking advantage of the available solar technology. Richard Martinko, director of transportation research at the University of Toledo, is an active participant in processing of local solar projects.
“We have plenty of different locations where we have implemented solar power to help with efficiency,” Martinko said.
Solar fields, which are large quantities of solar panels installed in one location, now exist at Toledo’s Scott Park, near UT’s campus, the Toledo Art Museum, and elsewhere.
Scott Park, located off Moran Avenue between Dorr and Nebraska, currently contains photovoltaic solar panels that were developed and managed by the university. Students at UT can use the park for research.
“Scott Park directly correlates with the university and our energy consumption goals,” Martinko said.
As reported by eneryboom.com, a website for green investors, the goal of the Scott Park solar initiative is to decrease campus energy consumption by at least 20 percent by 2014.
UT also plans to have students participate in this year’s Solar Decathlon, in which schools from around the country showcase their solar ventures. This year’s decathlon will be held in Washington D.C.’s Potomac Park.
The Toledo Art Museum is one of Toledo’s existing buildings with new green initiatives. In 2008, First Solar installed solar panels on the roof of the structure to provide energy to the building.
Martinko said the art museum solar field was one of the largest in the state of Ohio upon production.
The I-280 solar project, a field of panels to the west of the Glass City Veteran Skyway, provides energy to bridge. After receiving a grant from the state, the Department of Transportation and UT teamed up for the project. The $1.7 million project shows significant decreases in energy costs. Panels by Xunlight and First Solar complete this large solar plantation, which went into effect in July of 2010.
Rise of Solar Valley
Across the United States and around the globe, manufacturers are looking to make solar energy more efficient.
NREL is currently working on two major projects that use technology and research from the University of Toledo: a “solar optical furnace” and photovoltaic cells that process the suns energy at a faster rate, Scanlon said.
Through the rising anticipation of Toledo as a solar super power, Stewart is reluctant to say that the new technology can single-handedly revive the city.
“I can’t say the solar industry has been this huge boom that has turned everything around. That’s not true yet,” said Stewart.
However, Stewart does recognize the potential solar energy can make, not just in northwest Ohio, but everywhere.
“Solar energy will last forever,” Stewart said. “As long as we have the sun, it will last.”