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Published: Tuesday, 3/9/2010

Pursuing solar energy

OHIO, and the Toledo area in particular, are losing out on vital opportunities to expand on their early successes in the solar industry. That should be a wake-up call that state government needs to do more, and quickly, to encourage solar manufacturers to locate here.

When First Solar opened its Perrysburg plant in 2000, northwest Ohio was recognized as a global leader in solar energy. Lawmakers in Columbus have had a decade since then to ensure that Ohio remains on the leading edge of the energy revolution.

But as a Blade special report that concludes today points out, 13 states, including neighboring Michigan and Pennsylvania, now have more solar manufacturers than Ohio. Twelve of these states are expected to create more solar jobs in the next six years.

Because of the inaction or ineptitude of state officials, the Toledo area, once poised to become the capital of the solar industry, is quickly dissipating its opportunity to compete credibly in the solar market. Instead, other states are perceived as more business-friendly than Ohio, offering lucrative tax incentives and helping to create markets for solar products. Gov. Ted Strickland, legislative leaders, and local officials must aggressively address that perception.

There has been some progress. State business taxes, such as the corporate franchise tax and the tangible personal property tax, have been phased out. Ohio offers loans for solar projects, tax credits for creating and keeping jobs, and grants for worker retraining in renewable-energy technology. Two years ago, the state passed energy standards that require 12.5 percent of electricity sold in Ohio by 2025 to come from renewable sources.

But the state still collects a public utilities property tax that solar companies see as a roadblock to building or expanding manufacturing in the state. Lessening the burden of that tax would remove that barrier.

State law also continues to give preference to coal. Of $150 million set aside to fund advanced energy projects, $66 million is earmarked for “clean” coal technology. Coal projects are eligible for grants that don't have to be paid back, while other energy projects qualify only for loans. That disparity should be eliminated.

What choice does Ohio have but to do whatever it takes to build on the promise of the alternative energy industry? The days of good-paying auto-industry jobs that provided secure futures for thousands of high school graduates are not coming back. The future belongs to green industries that will demand highly educated and skilled workers for decades.

Has Ohio irretrievably squandered its dominance in solar manufacturing? Have the half-steps taken by the governor and state lawmakers allowed other states to lap Ohio in the race to lead this growth industry?

Perhaps not yet, but the window is closing quickly. Governor Strickland and other leaders have talked the talk on Ohio's future as the center of the solar industry. Now it's time to walk the walk.

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