Toledo, Ohio is one of America's old-line industrial cities that has seen decades of decline. Known in the last century for glass production and as a hub for the automotive industry it is on a mission to reinvent itself. As those industries faltered and jobs disappeared, a few executives looked for the next growth industry. They think they have found it in solar energy technology. Half a dozen solar companies have started up in the last year with plans to transform Toledo from a rust-belt city to a hub for green technology.
"This is our solar panel that is light weight and flexible," said Dr. Xungming Deng is president of the Xunlight Corporation. "You can carry this around and charge your various electrical appliances."
Xunlight is one of a half dozen start-up companies manufacturing solar panels in Toledo. The city is in the midst of a renewable energy renaissance and solar panel production is a big part of it.
"We actually find that Toledo, Ohio is a good place to grow a solar company because we have got a lot of skilled people, that they obtained these skills by building equipment for the auto and glass industry. Right now they are just building equipment for the solar industry," he said.
In the early part of the 19th century Toledo was known as the glass making capital of the U.S. It was here that high volume, low cost glass production was born. Later in the century, the auto industry had a large presence here. But as the fortunes of both industries declined, so did Toledo. Today, the smoke stacks of many of those factories stand lifeless along the city skyline. The unemployment rate is 12 percent, well above the national average.
But if entrepreneurs like Norman Johnston have anything to do with it, glass will once again be a big part of Toledo's future. He wants to transform Toledo from a fading industrial town to the renewable energy hub of the U.S. His company, Solar Fields, and other companies in Toledo, have been working to develop thin film solar technology, in which glass panels are coated with chemicals that produce an electric current when exposed to sunlight.
"A few years ago thin film had two percent of the market. Now it has over ten percent of the market. And it is because it is the least costly or, if you will, cheapest way to make solar panels," he said.
That increase in market share has translated into an estimated 6,000 new jobs in the area. Norm says that number is expected to grow exponentially over the next five years.
Steve Weathers, president of The Regional Growth Partnership, says the development of solar technology in Toledo has been a community-wide effort. "What you really find is that the parties that come together here are the private sector, the public sector, and the academic sector. And even the community. All participate in the growth of this industry here and recognize the value that it brings. Because the one thing it will do for everybody here across the board is create jobs and create economic prosperity," he said.
Both Xunlight and Solar fields started on the campus of the University of Toledo, which has developed one of the most respected solar technology programs in the country.
Johnston says Solar Field's relationship with the University has been critical to its success. "If you needed to talk to somebody who has an electrical engineering, or had a lot of photovoltaic experience, you could get a meeting with four full professors in a day that were glad to help you out so…it is an extremely good relationship," he said.
Dr. Xungming Deng, a professor at the University of Toledo, says the growth of solar depends on low cost mechanization, just as it was in the glass industry of the last century. "We believe that the eventual success of solar becoming mainstream energy generation, it relies on how low cost we can drive. So it is very important that we develop a low cost manufacturing process," he said.
Both Xunlight and Solar Fields are still in the start up phase. Solar Fields has partnered with a German company that is also building a plant in the former East Germany. Both companies want to ramp up production within the next year, bringing solar technology and Toledo into a brighter future.