Hot potential: Toledo’s solar industry promiseWritten by Claudia Boyd-Barrett | | email@example.com
Six months ago, 58-year-old Marty Vick quit his job at an auto parts plant and took a position as a machine builder for local solar startup company Xunlight Corp.
After 40 years making vinyl for vehicles at Textile Leather in North Toledo, leaving the only job he’d ever known was a tough decision. But with the auto industry in tatters, Vick saw the writing on the wall.
Last month, Textile Leather closed its doors for good, laying off 60 remaining employees.
“I knew it was coming,” Vick said, as he stood next to shelves of photovoltaic solar panels in Xunlight’s squeaky-clean plant on Nebraska Avenue. “I was lucky. The only one that’s working now is me. Everyone else in unemployed.”
Vick’s seamless career transition may be an exception to the rule, but his story is by no means unique. At Xunlight, about half of the firm’s 90 full-time employees previously worked in other industries, such as auto production and glass manufacturing, said CEO Xunming Deng. Their skills can be transferred to making solar panels and the machines that produce them.
“Toledo is an industrial town and there are a lot of people familiar with building equipment,” Deng said. “Now, these people are working side by side with solar experts.”
Indeed, while mass layoffs and high unemployment dominate news headlines, Toledo’s burgeoning alternative energy industry has become a rare bright spot in an otherwise dismal economy.
Xunlight, which began pilot production of its thin-film solar products nine months ago, has tripled its work force in the last year, said Liwei Xu, Xunlight’s co-founder and Deng’s wife. Another 15 positions have yet to be filled.
In Perrysburg, two other solar firms are also hiring.
First Solar, which is based in Arizona, but manufactures all of its U.S. panels here, is expanding production at its Perrysburg plant, creating at least 134 new jobs to add to the current workforce of 700.
Willard & Kelsey Solar Group LLC, a new company set up by veterans from other local alternative energy firms, has announced plans to begin mass commercial production of solar panels in the coming months. The operation is expected to employ 400 people by the end of the year, with wages averaging $21 an hour.
Already, 6,000 people in the Toledo area are employed at firms contributing to solar cell development and manufacturing, according to the Regional Growth Partnership, a nonprofit economic development group.
While this number pales in comparison to the thousands of lost manufacturing jobs, area officials are optimistic that the expansion of Toledo’s solar industry is a sign of greener things to come.
Kenneth Fallows, who leads the Environmental Council for the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments, said the success of the existing solar firms here is helping to bring other companies to the area. UT’s photovoltaic research facilities are another big attraction, he said.
“I think that Toledo really is on the threshold of being a leader in solar technology and solar manufacturing,” Fallows said. “It’s only one element, but it’s one element that could attract other elements and parallel industries and manufacturers to support it.”
Ryan Reiter, assistant for economic development to Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, said solar panel makers are not the only alternative industries to show promise. Toledo’s manufacturing expertise and advantages as a distribution hub are attracting “green” entrepreneurs of all types from around the country, he said.
“Over the last two or three years, it’s really started to pick up,” Reiter said. “A lot of these guys are coming from the East and West Coast. These guys are known for their innovation, but they don’t have skilled labor out there.”
Among the startups that Reiter is working with is a firm interested in producing cellulosic ethanol, and another that makes lightweight materials for cars to improve their energy efficiency.
“I think this spring and summer is going to be very interesting,” Reiter said. “We’re close to brokering some good deals with some alternative energy companies.”
Challenges to the development of full-fledged green jobs market remain, however. For new alternative energy companies to prosper, money is needed to get them off the ground, according to Dan Slifko, business development manager for the Regional Growth Partnership.
“A lot of this requires a tremendous amount of research and development, which means you have to come up with a tremendous amount of money on the front end of this,” Slifko said.
Finding the money is particularly difficult at a time when access to credit has all but dried up. Nevertheless, companies, such as Xunlight have been able to take advantage of government grants and loans for alternative energy development. Willard & Kelsey is also seeking $100 million from the federal stimulus package to fund its expansion.
Ultimately, a real takeoff in the solar power market will depend on the consumer. Currently, virtually all of the solar panels produced in Northwest Ohio are shipped overseas or to other parts of the country. Solar power makes up only a tiny percentage of energy usage in the United States.
“That’s where education comes in,” Slifko said. “Our job is to get the information out: the technology’s there, the research and development is there. We might not be ready to slap up a solar panel on every single house in this country, but clearly at some point in time, every person’s going to have to play a part in this.”
To Vick working at the Xunlight plant, the future for the solar industry, and his job, looks bright.
“This is going to be big,” he said, confidently. “I’ll retire from here, there’s no doubt.”