This time, though, the glass is being coated with thin layers of chemicals to produce ecofriendly "solar cells."
Toledo is among several old-line industrial cities trying to reinvent themselves -- sometimes based on their older industries -- to cash in on the demand for alternative energy. In 2006, solar start-up United Solar Inc. said it would open thin-film factories in Auburn Hills and Greenville, two Michigan towns hit hard by the automotive decline. And last year, a wind-generation plant began construction on the grounds of a shuttered Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna, N.Y.
Industry officials say older industrial cities offer the clean-tech industry some advantages, including less community opposition to new plants. "The good thing about the Rust Belt is they want factories there," says Ron Kenedi, vice president of Sharp Corp.'s Solar Energy Solutions Group, which is based in Huntington Beach, Calif.
Recently, Norm Johnston, a former executive at Toledo glass companies, showed how Solar Fields LLC, a start-up he runs, was leveraging the old glass industry. Walking to the back of a 22,000-square-foot former machine shop in the nearby suburb of Perrysburg, he patted the blue metal casing on a 100-foot-long production line, which his company has designed to coat sheets of glass heated to more than 1,100 degrees with chemicals to make solar cells.
I started in glass, and now I'm back in glass," says Mr. Johnston, whose start-up has recently been acquired by German solar-panel maker Q-Cells AG.
There is similar activity at several other sites in this metropolitan area of 600,000. Companies from Phoenix-based First Solar Inc. to Xunlight Corp. are opening factories in and around Toledo to create electricity-producing "thin-film" solar panels on glass and other materials. While not rated as efficient as the more prevalent silicon-based solar cells, thin film has taken off in the last year because of soaring demand for alternative energy and a world-wide silicon shortage. It is also cheaper to make than silicon cells.
In addition to First Solar, which in 1999 built a factory in Perrysburg that now employs about 600, the University of Toledo is receiving state grants to expand its solar research and incubate thin-film spinoffs. So far, the university has incubated four solar start-ups, including Solar Fields, Xunlight, Innovative Thin Films Ltd. and Advanced Distributed Generation LLC. Toledo's Regional Growth Partnership, a nonprofit economic development group, is also using state grants to help fund solar and other alternative energy start-ups.
"I think alternative energy is one of the major hopes for northwest Ohio," says John Szuch, chairman of Fifth Third Bank of Northwestern Ohio.
In Toledo, the repercussions of the new solar activity are already being felt. Pilkington North America Inc., a Toledo-based unit of Japan's Nippon Sheet Glass Co., has become a major supplier to First Solar, offsetting some of the business it lost in the traditional glass industry. Pilkington officials estimate thin-film sales have grown to about 10% of revenue for its American building products division, prompting the company to beef up a research division that had been undergoing cuts. "It's the biggest thing going for us right now in terms of glass," says Todd Huffman, vice president of strategic planning for Pilkington.
By JIM CARLTON
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