Plant, projects help Napoleon earn title of 'America's Number One Solar Small Town'

12/18/2012
BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Kevin Morris crimps the corners of a 250-watt solar panel frame at Isofoton North America Inc. in Napoleon. The factory in the Henry County seat has plans to add employees.
Kevin Morris crimps the corners of a 250-watt solar panel frame at Isofoton North America Inc. in Napoleon. The factory in the Henry County seat has plans to add employees.

NAPOLEON — Michael Peck still finds it amazing that a tiny area smack in the middle of rural northwest Ohio can have such a large solar footprint.

Granted, since last February, the city of Napoleon has been home to a solar panel-making operation headed by Mr. Peck, chairman of Isofoton North America Inc., an offspring of Spanish solar panel Isofoton.

But Isofoton North America’s $30 million plant, which employs 30 workers, isn’t the only connection to the solar industry in Henry County, Mr. Peck noted. AP Alternatives LLC, which makes and installs racks to hold solar panels, is running successfully in nearby Ridgeville Corners.

PHOTO GALLERY: Napoleon wins solar award

And Napoleon has two significant solar projects: a 9.8-megawatt solar array erected in 2011 by Campbell Soup Co., Napoleon's largest employer, and a 4.2-megawatt solar array built this year by American Municipal Power, which supplies electricity to Napoleon’s power system.

“None of this happened by magic,” Mr. Peck said.

The Washington-based Solar Energy Industries Association agrees. On Tuesday it declared Napoleon “America’s Number One Solar Small Town.”

Tom Kimbis, vice president of the 1,100-member solar industry trade group, gave Napoleon Mayor Ron Behm a crystal trophy at a presentation in Isofoton North America’s plant, which is in limited production but expects to ramp up its lone production line to about 200 panels a day after Jan. 1.

Mr. Kimbis said the award signifies that the Napoleon area “is a true manufacturing hub and a leader in the solar industry.”

Solar industry leadership “doesn’t just happen in Silicon Valley. It happens here,” he added.

Tom Kimbis of the Solar Energy Industries Association, left, presents the award for Number One Solar Small Town to Napoleon Mayor Ron Behm at Isofoton North America Inc.
Tom Kimbis of the Solar Energy Industries Association, left, presents the award for Number One Solar Small Town to Napoleon Mayor Ron Behm at Isofoton North America Inc.

Mr. Behm, who took office in January, said the growth of solar power in the area was an “exciting new opportunity” for Napoleon and he credited previous city officials for laying the groundwork to promote the industry locally.

Napoleon city manager Jon Bisher, who helped bring Isofoton North America to Henry County, said many might think the move was a “green initiative” by city officials.

But really, “it’s an economic development issue,” he added. If successful, Isofoton North America could have more than 300 employees in the next five years, paying them an average of $19 a hour.

The solar panel maker also is trying to ensure that many of those jobs go to military veterans, an issue dear to Mr. Bisher, who is a Vietnam veteran.

But before Isofoton North America can grow it needs state assistance — specifically, approval from the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, which has delayed its ruling on plans to build a $180 million solar panel power plant, the Turning Point Solar project in rural eastern Ohio.

Isofoton North America was chosen in 2011 to provide the panels for Turning Point, a 49.9-megawatt project. American Electric Power of Columbus has agreed to buy power from the array.

Until the PUCO approves, the project is stalled. Isofoton North America officials built the Napoleon plant in large part to provide its 250-watt monocrystalline silicon panels for Turning Point, and PUCO approval was expected long before now.

Mr. Peck said without Turning Point and its guaranteed contracts, the plant cannot get bank loans to add second and third assembly lines and hire an additional 90 workers.

The company says it has 50 unemployed veterans ready to be hired who were screened at a Henry County job fair. The company also has received $15 million in state loans with repayment set for April, and the company said Tuesday that it will begin making payments as scheduled.

But, Mr. Peck stressed, “The Turning Point project is the key.”

Isofoton, a huge European solar panel supplier with headquarters in Malaga, Spain, recently signed deals to produce solar panels for the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Japan.

If Turning Point is approved, the Napoleon plant could get equipment and manpower for its two additional assembly lines and then vie for some of that export-bound production, Mr. Peck said.

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.