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GM solar panels Granger Souder of Solscient Energy explains how the solar panels that his company installed on the roof of the General Motors plant on Alexis Road will work.
Granger Souder of Solscient Energy explains how the solar panels that his company installed on the roof of the General Motors plant on Alexis Road will work.
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Published: Friday, 3/9/2012

GM plant roof to produce energy

BY TYREL LINKHORN
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

It sure didn't seem like the kind of day to be checking out a solar panel array as officials led the way to the roof of the General Motors Toledo Transmission Plant on Alexis Road.

The sky was gray, the air was chilly, and the sun was nowhere to be seen.

"They're producing power, believe it or not," Granger Souder said, even as a light rain fell Thursday. "That's one of the reasons we went to First Solar [panels]; they're good in these lighting conditions and good flat."

Laid out before Mr. Souder was an 80,000-square-foot blanket of black panels owned and installed by his company, Solscient Energy.

The spread, which goes online next week, is the first part of a three-phase, 1.8-megawatt project that will feed renewable power back into GM's plant for at least the next 20 years.

GM officials say there's a strong push inside the company to make both its plants and products more energy-efficient. The higher-ups at the local plant began looking toward solar power for the plant about two years ago, but weren't sure how they wanted to go about adding it.

Then Solscient came calling.

"The way they approached us was. 'We want to be your energy company, and this is how we can do it,' " plant manager Joe Choate said. "All we're doing is providing them some roof space we wouldn't be using for anything anyway. It was almost a package that was too good to be true."

Solscient, a two-year-old company based at the University of Toledo's Clean and Alternative Energy Business Incubator, will sell all power the array generates back to the plant. GM will pay nothing for the installation or maintenance of the infrastructure.

Mr. Souder did not specify how much Solscient is spending on the project, though a large part of it is being financed through a $2.2 million loan from the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority's energy-efficient financing program.

Under the 20-year contract, GM will pay 6 cents per kilowatt hour for the first 10 years. For the second 10 years, the rate will increase 2 percent per year.

"It's comparable to what we're paying now and we've locked it in for 20 years," said Tom Wynn, site utility manager and the GM program engineer on the project.

GM is projecting energy cost savings of about $1 million over the 20-year contract. Mr. Wynn feels the estimate is conservative.

"Realistically, I think we expect to see more than that," he said.

Solscient also will be able to sell renewable energy credits it earns from the state for solar production back to utility companies.

Workers began installing the first panels in January and finished on Sunday. The grid was successfully tested then, but won't begin powering the plant until sometime next week. Installation of the second and third phases is expected to be done simultaneously, and should start in the next month and a half. Each phase generates 600 kilowatts.

Three other GM manufacturing facilities and two distribution centers in the United States are using solar power, though Toledo Transmission is unique in the type of arrangement it has with Solscient.

"Toledo is really one of the pioneering facilities in renewable energy for General Motors," said Rob Threlkeld, GM's global manager for renewable energy.

The plant -- also known as Powertrain -- was the first in the corporation to burn landfill gas, which is pumped in from Michigan, about two miles away. They've been doing that since 1994.

The solar power in Toledo will add to the current 30 megawatts of generation power GM has across the globe. Company officials say they want to double that by 2015, and double it again by 2020. Mr. Threlkeld said the company is always seeking opportunities to that end, and that Toledo presented a unique one.

"What really drove the Toledo [project] was the budding local solar industry and how engaged the Toledo leadership was," Mr. Threlkeld said.

The project used local labor and locally made components nearly exclusively, including the thin-film panels from First Solar's Perrysburg facility.

Though the current commitment is for 1.8 megawatts, plant officials believe there is ample opportunity to expand that. Mr. Choate would like to see enough capacity to make the plant self-sufficient when the production lines aren't running.

The project is Solscient's largest to date, and officials at the port authority said they believe the array atop the transmission plant will be the largest array in northwest Ohio when completed.

Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at: tlinkhorn@theblade.com or 419-724-6134.



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