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July 10th, 2011

Two steps forward, one step back for solar tech in Ohio

Published on July 10th, 2011 | By: pwray@ceramics.org

Array of Isofoton PV panels in Morocco.

The State of Ohio has been whipsawed by recent positive and negative announcements related to solar tech industries and jobs, including word of a new utility-scale solar farm and a new solar panel manufacturing facility, but also the unexpected news that a new recipient of a big Department of Energy loan guarantee is suddenly bailing out of the project.

Starting with the bad news first, the DOE announced late in June that it would provide a $275 million loan guarantee to Calisolar, a company that has developed a lower-cost method of purifying cheap, low-grade silicon. Originally, the company and DOE said that the project would yield 1,100 permanent jobs, which were planned for a converted auto parts stamping plant near Mansfield, Ohio.

However, Calisolar surprised everyone when it put the project in hiatus within days of the DOE announcement. The Mansfield New-Journal reported Calisolar officials quickly changed their mind about the Ohio location, saying they couldn’t meet construction deadlines linked to some state-based financial incentives. A Calisolar spokesperson told me a few days ago that the no other location is being contemplated, and he implied that the entire project might be dead in the water. Calisolar all but extinguished the last bit of hope for salvaging the project yesterday when it withdrew an application for discounted electric rates from the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (according to press reports, the lower rates would have saved the company $100 million in utility bills over the first decade of its operation). DOE had said that the Calisolar plant was expected to produce 16,000 metric tons of solar silicon annually, equivalent to more than two gigawatts of solar power generation per year.

The good news for the state is that all of the agreements have been worked out to convert 750 acres of reclaimed coal mine land in Southeast Ohio into a 50-megawatt solar farm that will use panels manufactured at a new Northwest Ohio facility owned by a Spanish firm. The $250 million solar farm development, described as one that will be among the largest east of the Mississippi River, is a project of Turning Point Solar LLC (which, itself, is joint venture between Agile Energy Inc. and New Harvest Ventures).

The land is owned by an Ohio-based utility, American Electric Power, and according to a news release, once the farm is built, a unit of AEP will operate and maintain the solar generating facility, as well as purchase and distribute the power. Besides construction jobs, the AEP release says “more than 600 direct jobs will be created, including approximately 300 during the construction and installation phase.” NHV’s website describes the site as being near The Wilds, one of North America’s largest wildlife refuges, and says the site “will be intercropped with diverse prairie plants to replenish the soil, serve as a carbon sink and create a new wildlife habitat.”

According to the Toledo Blade, the Turning Point Solar project will require 250,000 panels that will be made by Isofoton, a company headquartered in Madrid, Spain, at a new $32.2 million plant in a converted factory in Napoleon, Ohio, a small town near Toledo. Isofoton is mainly known for making monocrystalline PV panels. Although it recently announced that it would be building a polycrystalline facility in Spain, it’s not yet clear what kind of panels will be produced in Napoleon.

According to the Blade story, Isofoton was attracted to the region of Ohio because it had a workforce with experience in the PV industry and R&D work. Others in the region include First Solar and Xunlight, plus the University of Toledo has a PV innovation and commercialization center, and much of the areas strength in PV technology can be traced back to years when Toledo was a glassmaking capital of the world.

The Blade reports that Isofoton will open and expand the plant in several stages, initially creating 121 jobs at a 50-megawatt annual output. In three years, the company believes it will employ 330 and have a 300-megawatt assembly line.

Plans for the Isofoton–Turning Point Solar projects were first announced in October 2010 (see video below), but AEP only signed a memorandum of understanding back then. With its latest announcement, the utility now says there is an agreement that “formalizes the parties’ intentions to work toward the successful completion.” There had also been some uncertainty as to whether the state’s governor, John Kasich, would carry through on a pledge of grants, loans and other support made by his predecessor, Ted Strickland. Kasich announced this week that the state would be ponying up $15.8 million to assist with the Isofoton project.

October 2010 initial announcement of Ohio solar energy project.


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