Sun Burn IV: UT, RGP, Port lead Toledo into solar’s futureWritten by John P. McCartney | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Lloyd A. Jacobs, the 16th president of the University of Toledo, embraces the university’s role as a community leader. Since his appointment, Jacobs said his role as a solar research, development and manufacturing advocate has not wavered. However, he said the U.S. is a much different country than when he took office in July 2006.
“The economic recession and slow recovery have created trends in the solar industry that extend far beyond our region to all corners of the globe,” Jacobs said. “Northwest Ohio and the University of Toledo are certainly not immune to economic pressures, poor solar investments and flawed policy by the federal government and a discontinuation of many of the subsidies and research programs a young industry needs to build a foundation.”
Despite those trends, Jacobs said UT’s commitment to photovoltaics (PV) is as strong as ever, and the university will continue to invest in technologies that “will be an increasingly important part of this nation’s and this planet’s energy portfolio.
“It is UT’s commitment to solar despite the ebbs and flows of society that has placed us among the best institutions in the nation in the research and advancement of solar technology. We invested in solar when the price of gas was high in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We invested in solar when gas was cheap in the early 1990s. And we will continue that commitment through the rough period the solar industry is currently experiencing.”
Jacobs said that because the past three years have been as tumultuous or higher education as they have been for all Americans, he made personal appearance decisions that he acknowledged some may have interpreted as a waning of support for solar energy research and development (R&D).
“With a weak economy comes fewer resources,” he said. “It is certainly possible that I have delegated some of the media opportunities or solar-related meetings to faculty and administrators, but that speaks to the strength of UT’s solar team, not a lack of my or the institution’s commitment. UT continues to lead and be actively engaged in solar research, commercialization and public-private partnerships.”
Jacobs refutes the suggestion that solar energy R&D has taken a back seat to the University of Toledo and Medical University of Ohio merger and UT’s resulting commitment to medical research.
The assumption “presupposes that medical research and solar research are mutually exclusive in some way. No such zero-sum framework exists,” he said. “All federal grants across all federal agencies have become much harder to obtain as federal budget cuts have occurred since 2008.”
Since the 2006 merger, Jacobs said he hears from some UT main campus employees that he is too focused on the Health Science Campus (HSC) and University of Toledo Medical Center (UTMC) matters. At the same time, Jacobs said he hears from HSC and UTMC employees that he’s left them behind and only focuses on the main campus.
“I am always working to ensure this university rises as one entity and welcome any thoughts on ways I can improve that,” he said. “But it strikes me as worth considering that the belief that I am ignoring one part of this campus over another may also speak to some degree to the interests of the person who holds that belief.”
Jacobs also rejected the suggestion that UT’s commitment to solar has wavered in the past four years, pointing to, among other things, collaborations, plans for future activities, faculty and invited guests as evidence that the university’s support of alternative energy is unquestionable.
Jacobs said UT played a large role in attracting Isofoton North America to Northwest Ohio. He pointed to UT’s plans to host a booth for the fifth straight year at the upcoming World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
In addition, two new solar researchers began work at UT in 2011. Yanfa Yan joined UT-PIV staff after 12 years as a thin-film solar cell scientist at the National Center for Photovoltaics. Nikolas Podraza, who received his doctorate from UT in 2008, returned to the university after three years at Penn State University’s Materials Research Institute.
And in July 2010, Sultan Al Jaber, managing director and CEO of Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s renewable energy initiative, visited UT, addressed UT-PVIC’s alternative energy researchers and received an honorary UT degree.
“UT is committed to solar, and we will maximize our opportunities to advance the solar field whether the industry is in rough patches or is ascendant,” Jacobs said. “This technology will be a key part of our future energy portfolio and UT will continue to lead in its development.”
After a career at UT as a distinguished professor of public policy and economic development and the university’s 15th president from 2001-06, Dan M. Johnson returned to the university to serve as its director of global initiatives.
Johnson has been a leading voice in the past decade in support of Toledo’s solar energy R&D and manufacturing.
Johnson said he believes Northwest Ohio’s leadership in photovoltaics at UT and the glass industry make this region the perfect location to develop the solar industry.
“We had a head start on the industry in many ways,” Johnson said. “Toledo had the key players involved early on. The University of Toledo researchers — a very active and respected team of researcher — were early leaders of the solar industry in the region.
“We also had the active participation of our local economic development organizations and professionals. They played their roles and, in my view, played them quite well despite major changes in their own organizations and leadership. Local government officials did what they could, largely adding their moral support and talking up Toledo’s budding solar industry. Add to that the significant infusions of venture capital, grants and loans. And, finally, there were the individual entrepreneurs and investors. All the ingredients were in place.”
Johnson said that researchers, mayors, economic development organizations and investors alone “cannot make a budding industry successful. The key players are the industry leaders themselves. In the end, the responsibility for success is theirs.
“They must know how to use the resources at hand. Gone are the days in this highly competitive market when the individual industry can do this alone. It really requires a team effort and a willingness to collaborate, form networks, share information and work together. We seem unable to take that last step in making things happen.
American solar companies have no control over China’s dumping of solar panels on the world market or the nuances of global demand for solar panels, Johnson said.
“But, in my view, we have stopped short of doing all we can to take full advantage of the existing resources,” he said. “This requires working together. Competing? Yes. But also collaborating, sharing information and asking for help. This takes a special kind of leadership. One scholar called it ‘the silent cry for leadership.’”
Johnson used the Olympic Games, specifically the track and field events, as a timely example of how American solar companies need to approach their businesses.
“The solar industry is sort of like the relay races where the first three runners of our team are leading the pack and the last runner drops the baton,” he said. “We can’t drop the baton and expect to win.”
Research & development
As the scientific co-director of UT’s Wright Center for Photovoltaics Innovation and Commercialization (UT-PVIC), Robert Collins said he is just as concerned as his fellow researchers with recent press coverage that focuses on just one solar manufacturing company. He believes the coverage hurts all 50 companies with which UT-PVIC works. He suggested local broadcast and print media coverage of Willard & Kelsey creates collateral damage. It leads people to conclude that if one company is struggling like reports say Willard & Kelsey is, then all companies must be struggling in the same way, he said.
“We know that the broad solar industry is struggling, but I think each of the PV companies in Northwest Ohio is poised to survive this,” Collins said. “But still, we all have to work together to make sure that happens. ‘Working together’ means the companies, along with [UT-PVIC] staff and faculty experts, must apply their expertise and work toward the same goal.”
Collins said UT’s interdisciplinary team approach to problem-solving will serve UT-PVIC in its research and development over the next 10 years.
“Second-generation photovoltaics is our expertise, but we need to collaborate with those who are doing first-generation and third-generation PV,” he said. “There needs to be a lot of collaboration among disciplines to solve problems for the future. That was the idea behind PVIC, to get groups of faculty members working together in research and development in photovoltaics.”
Collins said UT-PVIC’s goals for the future include collaborating with existing companies, using the Wright Center’s reputation and body of work as a “gravitational field” to attract new companies, and conducting the research that generates the advances in thin film technology that ultimately lead to new companies.
‘How do we do that?’
For UT-PVIC faculty, Collins said the questions become “How do we do that?” and “How do we map our job responsibilities with what PVIC would like to do?”
“And that’s actually easy to do because our No. 1 goal is teaching,” Collins said. “We would like to provide Ohio with people with expertise in photovoltaics. We want the people who come to Ohio for their education and the people who grew up in Ohio to actually stay in Ohio long-term and work in the photovoltaics industry here.”
Collins said that although he has had some out-of-state Ph.D. graduates stay in Ohio, “That’s really what we have to be better at. I believe we’re good at it, but I also believe we need to be better in our training of students to work in Ohio industry and academia to keep Ohio strong.”
In addition to increased manpower, Collins said researchers must continue to conduct advanced research to develop technologies that can be patented or used to establish companies like Xunlight and Xunlight 26.
“In the area of new technology, Mike Heben and Randy Ellingson (UT-PVIC faculty) are really good at integrating nanotechnology concepts into what will become third-generation photovoltaics, enhancing what existing second-generation companies like First Solar do,” Collins said.
He said research can also be focused on problem-solving for companies, like developing online monitoring equipment that can be added to a production line. Collins likened his team’s current research to a grocery store bar-code scanner that identifies a product passed over an optical scanner.
“The same type of thing can be done on productions lines,” Collins said. “Before you end up actually making a module, [the production line scanner] allows you to predict whether the material is any good and whether you should shut down the line when you’re having problems. It’s a way of improving yield.”
Collins said UT-PVIC is “well along that path” of providing manpower, developing problem-solving technologies and generating new technologies for startups.
A promising new area of research is in advanced materials, Collins said, and Yan, a recent addition to the faculty, is exploring “all types of materials technology, not just the conventional ones that thin-film people currently use.
“He has some of the really advanced, novel ideas in the field. Since he’s an expert in thin-film, second-generation photovoltaics, his real goal is to put a good semiconductor on a bad substrate.”
Randy J. Ellingson
As an advocate for research that will transition today’s PV technology to “even more ideal photovoltaics materials and technologies,” Ellingson is convinced that if researchers can advance the knowledge and technology to the right level, solar manufacturing companies “will jump on that” to improve their production line processes.
“My sense is that a company like First Solar is focusing on understanding its own material and its own technology, and that it’s not able to spend the kind of resources it would like to on other technologies,” Ellingson said. “Other technologies are up to other companies, or universities, or national lab researchers, and there has been a huge growth in interest in photovoltaics in university research programs.”
Ellingson, a UT-PVIC and School for Solar and Advanced Renewable Energy faculty member and associate professor of physics, came to UT in August 2008 from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Ellingson said he believes UT-PVIC’s research during the next 10 years will motivate universities without UT’s credentials to begin research that will further the use of photovoltaics technology in the solar manufacturing industry.
“The University of Toledo has a lot of depth and breadth in photovoltaics research,” Ellingson said. “Other universities have many instances where faculty members who have been working in some other material science area will say, ‘I’m working in photovoltaics also.’
“Many of them do very good research. It’s an example of funding focus drawing more researchers to the field, which is part of the intent when the people who decide how funding is allocated for research decide to focus on clean energy materials and technology. Their hope is that the best researchers will come to work on that.”
Richard B. Stansley Jr.
In his role as chairman of UT’s Innovative Enterprises (UT-IE), Stansley Jr. is adamant that UT-PVIC must commit itself in the next 10 years to conduct research into more than just its specialty, thin-film PV technology.
He said UT-PVIC needs to explore all the different roles first-generation (crystalline silicon), second- generation (thin-film photovoltaics) and third- generation (nanotechnology photovoltaics) technologies play in solar product manufacturing.
Since crystalline silicon technology works best in direct sunlight and is significantly impacted by heat, Stansley said its use in the American Southwest supports UT’s partnership with Isofoton NA and its first-generation technology.
Thin-film PV technology operates better in diffuse light.
“Our [technology] will produce power from dawn to dusk while crystalline silicon is probably at its best in a four-hour window,” he said.
Dean Monske, president and CEO of Regional Growth Partnership (RGP), said that his agency will continue to target what the State of Ohio has identified as Northwest Ohio’s major cluster industries: alternative energy, automotive, advanced manufacturing and materials, bioscience, and transportation and integrated logistics.
“Please understand that no one industry takes precedence over the others,” Monske said. “These industries were identified because of existing strength and capacity, as well as potential for future growth.”
Monske said that when the RGP meets with site consultants and other location decision-makers, his staff “touts many advantages of doing business in Northwest Ohio, including geographic location, transportation assets, a trained and educated workforce, a great number of institutions for higher education, local and state tax climates and quality of life assets.”
When prospective alternative energy businesses make inquires into Toledo, Monske said the RGP promotes assets including “pioneering research and development; core capacity in solar panel manufacturing; solar-related components like panel installation and inverters; and venture capital and business assistance for technology startups.”
Monske said RGP’s consistent sales message, regardless of what industry it targets, is unique to Northwest Ohio.
“We are close to many customers, no matter the industry, and we possess all modes of transportation to quickly reach customers,” he said.
Development: Port Authority
Developing solar energy projects has been, and will continue to be, more and more challenging for the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority primarily because of Ohio’s Renewable and Advanced Energy Portfolio Standard, said Paul Toth, the agency’s president and CEO.
“The issue right now is that the utilities are doing everything they can to fight having to subsidize solar,” Toth said. “It’s become a huge challenge for those of us trying to implement solar. We can’t get any type of commitment from either the state or the utilities to be able to go out and finance these installations.”
The renewable portfolio standard requires energy providers to annually buy renewable energy credits.
“The utilities have been fighting that, and frankly, there’s queasiness around those of us that have looked at financing and trying to promote the solar industry in NW Ohio;” Toth said. “At any time, the State of Ohio could say, ‘You know what? We’re just getting rid of this.’ And every one of those renewable energy credit contracts that are written say, ‘If the state gets rid of the renewable portfolio standard, this contract is null and void.’ They no longer basically owe us any money.”As a result, Toth said, utility companies always negotiate very short-term contracts, a practice he acknowledged as smart business.
“Frankly, the [solar] industry can survive with that. It’s the uncertainty as to whether Gov. [John] Kasich or the General Assembly could wake up tomorrow and just simply get rid of the renewable portfolio standard. That’s kind of the difficult part of being able to go out and finance solar projects,” Toth said.
Despite the political uncertainty, Toth said the Port Authority has developed and financed projects like the one-megawatt solar project at Collins Park for the City of Toledo and the financing risk for the General Motors Powertrain project.
In addition, Toth said the Port Authority has conceptualized a $15 million five-megawatt solar project at the Toledo Executive Airport in Wood County, “going as far as getting the interconnection study done with Toledo Edison and having several large development partners work with us.”
The airport project would tie into Toledo Edison’s system, Toth said.
“The challenge is getting the renewable energy credits on any kind of a long-term commitment, or even a short-term commitment, knowing that the renewable portfolio standard is going to be there for a long period of time,” he said.
“The queasiness with investing $15 million is just producing electricity and selling it does not pay for the [development and construction] costs, even though the price of panels has come down over the years.
“We can’t generate enough revenue to pay off that debt just by producing electricity at five cents a kilowatt hour. We need that renewable energy credit to pay the debt service, and the uneasiness of knowing whether it’s going to be there long-term is why these types of projects haven’t happened,” Toth said.
Universities have long been driven by the faculty’s interest in the subject matter they study, Stansley said.
“That’s been true up until 20 years ago, when universities began to see a shift that addresses how industry interfaced with the university,” Stansley said. “And that’s where UT’s Clean and Alternative Energy Incubator (UT-CAEI) comes in. It acts as a portal to UT, a place where companies can access the resources of the university.”
Stansley describes the Wright Center for Photovoltaics Innovation and Commercialization as a piece of UT-CAEI that conducts applied research. “We talk about relevance now,” he said. “We do applied research, which is very different than basic or academic research. We work on real-world problems.”
UT-CAEI’s singular focus is building new business enterprises, Stansley said.
When a project moves into the prototype phase, a function that involves Rocket Ventures, Stansley said UT-CAEI can support that business enterprise in four ways: financial access to loans and grants; academic expertise in the business’ field; establishment of a physical location in the Greater Toledo area; and access to established production processes to save a business startup costs.
Stansley said UT-CAEI, a nonprofit organization, works on “institutional entrepreneurial activity. In the world of Dr. Jacobs, entrepreneurialism is very important because it allows you to be a very nimble organization.” Stansley pointed to UT-PVIC and the Interprofessional Immersive Simulation Center as two of UT-CAEI’s projects with an entrepreneurial twist.
“Dr. Jacobs’ commitment, and the university’s commitment, to solar research and development are as strong as it has ever been. What’s happened is the glamour of PV, the shine of PV, has dulled. It’s like the automobile. When the automobile was first introduced, everybody made headlines all over the place. It was going to replace the horse and buggy.
“It was 30 years later before the automobile even had an impact on it. There are comparative cycles in every industry. One time, [there were] 68 car companies in Detroit, Mich. How many are there today? Three significant car companies headquartered out of the Detroit area.
“PV is the same way. There are lots of producers, people building it all over. There’s consolidation of the marketplace. It’s going to consolidate based on technology, based on cost, based on capital of investment required. That’s what you’re going to see happen.
“In thin-film technology, Northwest Ohio companies are the lowest cost producers of photovoltaics anywhere in the world. I don’t care who, what, where and when. The costs we have, the technologies we have, are low cost. I am confident of that.”
“I can’t help what happens in China with their subsidies. I can’t control that. Our government has stepped in to make a difference. I don’t think it’s enough because it’s not reflective of what it takes to level that playing back to what it should be. But it is a help,” Stansley said.
“You’ll see things start to play out. It’s tough right now, but the market for PV is increasing, double digits, probably one of the only industries where we see market increases like that.
“Employment opportunities in the PV area continue to increase. And they’re not necessarily low-paying jobs.
“We worry about creating jobs. And this is very important. Wealth and prosperity are the drivers of jobs. When you start to build things, you create wealth and prosperity.
“People laugh at me and they say, ‘Well, what happened to Solyndra? Xunlight’s in the paper. Willard & Kelsey isn’t doing well.’
“These companies were undercapitalized to begin with. It’s the story of Northwest Ohio. We have a trait of undercapitalizing our opportunity, and then going out looking for money.
“We have to get our arms around it and use it as an example where we really need to step to the plate and try to help companies. I don’t know how to do it, but I think we’re doing our part in trying to build these companies from the embryonic stage, from the concept. But we can’t do it all. And there’s no single organization in the community that can do it all. What we find is ourselves coming together to figure it out.”