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Solar incubator spreads wings

UT program adds firms, broadens its research

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    Magic Morehead, left, and Kendra Payton, Woodward High School seniors participating in a UT science and engineering program, load glass samples at the Wright Center for Photovoltaics.

    The Blade/Dave Zapotosky
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  • Solar-incubator-spreads-wings-3

    More companies are adding their names to the board outside the incubator on the UT campus.

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    Daniel Cassavar applies insignias to breaker boxes as Netronex Energy Systems in Millbury. The company plans to move to the UT campus this month to be closer to other alternative energy firms.

    The Blade/Jeremy Wadsworth
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    Deepak Sainju, left, and Puruswottam Aryal, UT doctoral students, monitor a solar-panel substrate process at a UT lab.

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Deepak Sainju, left, and Puruswottam Aryal, UT doctoral students, monitor a solar-panel substrate process at a UT lab.

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Nextronex Energy Systems LLC, a maker of systems that convert solar energy for use with common electrical devices, believes strength comes in numbers.

Although Nextronex has had success at its own facility -- it will more than quadruple sales to about $4 million this year -- the Millbury firm plans to move to the University of Toledo this month to be closer to other alternative-energy companies and the university's solar research.

"When people come in from around the country or the world, we'll be there to participate," said Peter Gerhardinger, Nextronex's chief technology officer.

Companies such as Nextronex consider UT's Solar program, and its network of solar businesses, as a way to grow to the next level.

But the program, which has spawned two major solar panel companies and several solar-industry-related firms, is evolving.

It is bringing in new researchers, backing new photovoltaic research, and helping create homegrown solar firms that would generate jobs in northwest Ohio.

The solar program also has had growing pains -- it missed on two major federal funding grants since 2009 and recently was criticized by the university's faculty union.

But Dr. Lloyd Jacobs, UT's president, said the university's research capabilities place it among the top solar institutions.

"We have more scientific knowledge than almost anywhere in the world," he said of the university's photovoltaic research. "We have more scientists doing more complex scientific work than anywhere else in the world."

Rick Stansley, UT's director of strategic business development, said the university has developed, and is cultivating, one of the nation's premier solar programs.

Solar-incubator-spreads-wings-2

Daniel Cassavar applies insignias to breaker boxes as Netronex Energy Systems in Millbury. The company plans to move to the UT campus this month to be closer to other alternative energy firms.

The Blade/Jeremy Wadsworth
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"There's no one else we're aware of that has the breadth of the expertise that we have here at the university," said Mr. Stansley, who also heads UT's venture capital program.

Mr. Stansley said UT's researchers are well versed in several solar panel technologies, including silicon, cadmium telluride, and copper indium gallium selenide. The university is hiring to advance technology, including two nanomaterial researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Penn State University.

The university is the lead partner in the Wright Center for Photovoltaics Innovation and Commercialization on its campus, where it collaborates with Bowling Green State University and Ohio State University, as well as more than 14 companies and independent labs, on solar research.

It is also building its school of solar and advanced renewable energy, which was created in 2009 and shares 10 faculty members with other UT schools. Four students entered the university's master's degree program in photovoltaics last fall, and UT is working to recruit a second class of master's students to enter the program this fall.

However, the UT solar program experienced a couple of funding setbacks in the last two years.

The university was part of a team rejected this spring for a $46 million U.S. Department of Energy grant that would have established a Photovoltaics Manufacturing Initiative Center on UT's campus and a similar center in Midland, Mich., connected with Dow Corning Corp.

In 2009, the energy department established 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers at universities and national laboratories to study ways to reduce the cost of alternative energies, but UT was not selected.

"In this business, you win some, you lose some," Dr. Jacobs said. "There are dozens of people competing and all sorts of things run into it, ranging from politics to expertise."

But in its April newsletter, UT's chapter of the American Association of University Professors said the university's loss of the recent federal grant means "the UT solar program does not carry national prestige."

"The UT solar research program is running on empty," wrote faculty member Don Wedding. "There are insufficient external funds to support the … solar research structure created under President Jacobs." Union officials could not be reached for comment.

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More companies are adding their names to the board outside the incubator on the UT campus.

The Blade/Dave Zapotosky
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Dr. Jacobs called the union criticism a "mean-spirited screed" and said the solar program received $12 million in external funding last year. The university says it has 30 U.S. and foreign patents issued or pending that relate to its solar technologies.

Beyond academic research and development, UT is working to back commercialization of photovoltaic technologies through its technology transfer program, venture capital investments, and support for small solar businesses through its incubator program.

UT's Innovation Enterprises, an investment fund for early-stage businesses, recently formed a joint venture with Rocket Ventures, a $22.5 million venture-capital fund through the Toledo Regional Growth Partnership. Although the venture capital programs make separate investment decisions, the funds share business services and the joint venture is led by Mr. Stansley.

With the funds working together, Mr. Stansley said, the university is providing capital and increased support for entrepreneurs developing solar technologies.

"The goal is for us to be able to move a company to success or sustainability in shorter time with less resources invested," he said.

Part of that assistance includes UT's Nitschke Technology Commercialization Complex, as well as its Clean and Alternative Energy Incubator. Tenants say proximity to the university's solar research and access to significant solar firms such as First Solar Inc., which has its only U.S. manufacturing plant in Perrysburg Township, and Toledo-based Xunlight Corp. has helped make their firms commercially viable.

Buckeye Silicon Inc., which is developing polycrystalline silicon for the solar-panel industry, moved into UT's alternative energy incubator in 2009 and will graduate to a stand-alone production plant this summer. The firm, owned by California-based Sphere Renewable Energy Corp., has five employees and could have nine by year's end, Mark Erickson, executive vice president, said.

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Magic Morehead, left, and Kendra Payton, Woodward High School seniors participating in a UT science and engineering program, load glass samples at the Wright Center for Photovoltaics.

The Blade/Dave Zapotosky
Enlarge | Buy This Image

"Being able to have a facility right there at the incubator, with ready access to the professionals that are doing the testing and understand our business, it dramatically decreases the time sequence in order to get [our] testing done," Mr. Erickson said.

TecnoSun Solar Systems AG, a German company that makes mounting systems for solar panels, signed a one-year lease with the Nitschke complex in April. Greg Knudson, chief executive of the company's U.S. division, said the university showed that northwest Ohio's network of solar firms could provide business connections and sales potential for the German company.

Other solar firms in the university's incubator system include Athens-based Dovetail Solar and Wind, Solar Spectrum LLC, Solcient Energy LLC, Sure Energy, and Dovetail Solar and Wind, which has its headquarters in Athens, Ohio.

Mr. Stansley said the potential for UT's program to grow is significant.

"We're not in the throes of the solar energy revolution yet," Mr. Stansley said. "We're only in its infancy."

Contact Sheena Harrison at: sharrison@theblade.com or 419-724-6103.

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