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Published: Saturday, 8/23/2008

Sunny news, for a change

THE long-term economic prospects of the Toledo area are distinctly brighter with First Solar Inc.'s welcome announcement that it plans to more than double the size of its Perrysburg Township operation, adding 134 jobs in the process.

The Tempe, Ariz., based company, a world leader in low-cost, thin-film solar cell technologies, saw its sales more than triple to $464 million in the first half of 2008. Expanding its Cedar Business Center facility to include not only more production capacity but also a second research facility is a vote of confidence for northwest Ohio as it positions itself as a leader in "green" energy technologies, including solar power.

And First Solar is not alone. Two other manufacturers - Xunlight Corp. and Willard & Kelsey Solar Group LLC - have said they will begin producing solar panels in the area, and a fourth company has a research facility here. Add to that the University of Toledo's alternative energy research and Owens Community College's status as one of the few colleges offering courses in how to set up and install solar panels and industry prospects are looking good.

Geoff Rich, a First Solar applications engineer who teaches the Owens course on photovoltaic installation, put his finger on it when he told The Blade, "For years, people have said, 'five more years and solar power will really take off.' Well, now it is taking off."

Indeed it is, and as growing competition for limited supplies of oil and natural gas push prices higher and higher, it is becoming increasingly clear that the sky's the limit for solar and other sources of alternative energy. When First Solar's expansion is complete, it will have boosted production capacity by a third, to 192 megawatts of solar panels annually - enough to power about 67,000 homes. Currently, nearly all First Solar panels produced in Perrysburg and elsewhere are shipped to solar farms in Asia and Europe, but already home builders in the United States are beginning to offer solar panels as new-construction option.

Expanding solar panel production, Bowling Green's windmill farm, Toledo's plans for a plant to turn methane into electricity, and the $18.6 million grant awarded to UT to create a Center for Photovoltaics Innovation and Commercialization - all these recent developments are cause for celebration.

Together, they suggest the breakout of a diverse alternative-energy industry, which, if husbanded carefully, someday could prove to be an antidote for Toledo's job woes.



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