Business finds home in Ohio’s ‘Biggest small solar town’

In 2009, solar panel maker Isofoton started searching for a U.S. manufacturing base. After interviewing more than 20 states, the northwest corner of Ohio emerged as an ideal location.

The area has a history in advanced glass manufacturing; companies that specialize in solar innovation and efficiency; and a skilled workforce. Northwest Ohio also is home to the University of Toledo’s cutting-edge solar commercialization and research-and-development programs, as well local suppliers for sourcing parts.

“It’s a natural progression for our region to move into some of these high-tech industries,” said Rick Stansley Jr., co-director of the University of Toledo’s Center for Photovoltaic Innovation and Commercialization.

After signing agreements to produce 280 megawatts of solar panels – including 250,000 panels for American Electrical Power’s Turning Point Solar project – Isofoton North America set down roots in the town of Napoleon, Ohio. By October 2011, the company announced it would invest $31.2 million and create as many as 300 jobs over the next three years.

“We really wanted to commit to using the product within the state,” said Michael Peck, chairman of Isofoton North America. “That means more jobs in Ohio when you support locally sourced and built projects.”

The company also committed to reaching 65 percent “Made in Ohio” content for its product, and filling half its production assembly line with returning Ohio veterans.

Isofoton North America quickly gained national attention for its innovative work and partnerships. In December 2012, Isofoton, the University of Toledo, and other partners received the Department of Energy’s highly competitive “Plug and Play” $21 million award to develop lower-cost, lightweight, rooftop-mounted solar technology.

That same month, the Solar Energy Industry Association came to Napoleon to award the city the title of “biggest solar small town in the United States.”

In January 2013, Isofoton started commercial production. Forty employees were hired to run the first 50-megawatt production line inside a former Campbell’s Soup facility.

The City of Napoleon and the State of Ohio made their own commitments to help Isofoton grow. American Municipal Power worked with Napoleon officials and Isofoton North America to build a 4.2-megawatt solar array in 2012. On a brownfield site in Napoleon that was in need of clean up, the project produces power at a competitive 8-cents-per-kilowatt-hour rate at peak times.

The project “proved the point about Isofoton North America and the solar model generally,” said Dr. Jon Bisher, Napoleon’s City Manager. “People in Napoleon take pride in this solar field.”

The state also committed $15 million in loans for the factory, which will be paid back over the next several years with the first payment due to Ohio in March 2013.

Beyond Isofoton North America, about 50 solar supply chain businesses employ 6,000 workers in the region’s solar cluster. Isofoton North America and the other companies have prospered in Northwest Ohio because of the state’s commitment to clean energy. In 2008, the state legislature enacted a renewable energy standard requiring 12.5 percent of the state’s power to come from renewable energy sources by 2020. Wind energy production has increased rapidly, and now the same is happening with solar.

“People are putting in rooftop solar and we’re starting to do more commercially,” Bisher said. “It’s exciting because the standards are doing what people said they would. The mindset is changing as more projects go in … People are saying we need more options …That’s an awakening for this area of the Midwest.”

With the initial security of its agreements and support from former Gov. Ted Strickland and current Gov. John Kasich (all of Isofoton North America’s formal agreements with the State of Ohio were signed in 2011 under the current administration), Isofoton North America had hoped to hire approximately 120 workers by the start of the year – including 50 Ohio veterans.

“The City Manager of Napoleon and I are both veterans, and we had always wanted to hire returning veterans starting four years ago when we first put the building blocks for our NW Ohio presence together,” said Peck. “We’ve identified 126 returning Ohio vets just around the Henry County area.”

In January, however, the state’s public utility commission, under pressure from Ohio utility FirstEnergy, voted to put the Turning Point project’s deployment on hold. With its largest order hanging in the balance, Isofoton North America has been forced to delay hiring veterans and other applicants. State legislative reversal of Ohio’s once-undeniable clean energy support threatens the region’s economic future.

“Companies like Isofoton North America are great examples of the people and the commitments we are most dependent on to bring manufacturing back to Ohio,” said Stansley. “Just because an administration changes, doesn’t mean a commitment changes.”

Despite these challenges, Isofoton North America and the City of Napoleon aren’t backing down, and they are committed to success in Ohio. The State of Ohio, in partnership with state universities, clean energy business groups, and others, is working to reconvene an improved 2.0 version of the Turning Point solar project with a shorter execution horizon that has the potential to create up to 700 good family- and community-sustaining jobs in rural Southwest and Northwest Ohio starting summer 2013.

“Turning Point and other projects in the state are so important to Isofoton North America to help it grow and gain a foothold in its infancy,” Bisher said. “Our hometown solar factory is short on orders right now, but we’re working hard to rectify that.”

— Environmental Entrepreneurs

Photo credit: Isofoton