An unprecedented energy transition is under way in the United States. Ohio is well positioned to increase its economic and manufacturing competitiveness and create more high-paying jobs.
In northwest Ohio, the glass industry has long played a key economic role. Now the high-tech manufacturing expertise developed in our region is driving Toledo’s thriving hub of solar-energy research and advanced manufacturing, and adding these innovations to our Glass City persona.
A fundamental driver of the transformation of Toledo’s photovoltaic industry is the cooperative attitude among public and private enterprises that maximizes the use of scarce resources. The ways in which universities, government, and the private sector have come together in northwest Ohio to form partnerships and promote innovation provide a successful and powerful model for the revitalization of manufacturing in our state and across the nation.
In 2001, the University of Toledo set its sights on becoming a center of excellence in thin-film photovoltaics. University researchers developed expertise and technologies that continue to underpin advanced solar innovations.
Two years later, the National Science Foundation awarded UT a grant to establish a northwest Ohio solar-energy cluster. The aim was to help create public-private partnerships and ensure they were pulling in the same direction.
Next, the university opened a clean-energy business incubator to nurture solar-energy entrepreneurs and startup companies. In 2007, the state of Ohio, UT, Ohio State University, Bowling Green State University, and private-sector partners established the Wright Center for Photovoltaics Innovation and Commercialization at UT to move advanced solar technologies from the laboratory to the marketplace. Other business groups and Ohio’s government invested.
Last year, the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce started the Northwest Ohio Solar Initiative to build on the industry’s momentum in the region. State government has continued to fund research and provide seed money. Today, UT is among the leading universities nationally for moving solar research into spin-off companies.
Toledo’s Xunlight Corp. is one of the new companies hatched in this ecosystem. Founded to commercialize technology developed at UT laboratories, the company became the university’s first graduate of the clean-energy incubator and employs 115 local workers.
Backed by more than $40 million in private venture capital and state seed money, Xunlight uses innovative manufacturing technologies to make high-performance, flexible, lightweight solar modules for solar rooftops, portable power, solar awnings, solar billboards, and energy harvesting for electronic devices.
Northwest Ohio also is blossoming as a clean-energy center. In the past three years, companies have announced $1.4 billion in investments in solar, wind-energy, advanced-battery, and biofuels projects and business expansion in the region, the Solar Energy Industry Association reports.
The association identified more than 160 Ohio companies working across the solar value chain; 56 of them have manufacturing facilities in the state, and more than a dozen are clustered around Toledo. Ohio’s solar-energy industry employs more than 2,900 workers, and the number of jobs related to solar energy in northwest Ohio is expected to grow to more than 32,000 by 2016.
Ohio has the opportunity to seize an immediate competitive advantage, thanks to the “shale gale” that is sweeping the state. It can create a climate for productivity and prosperity through investments in clean-energy technologies, energy efficiency, and renewable-energy resources. This revolution in natural gas, leveraged to its fullest potential, could create long-term advantages for many of Ohio’s leading industries.
A dialogue that will take place at UT this week, involving national and Ohio leaders, is a key element of the American Energy and Manufacturing Competitiveness Partnership of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the Council on Competitiveness.
This joint effort will identify challenges in the manufacture of clean-energy and energy-efficient products. It will consider ways the public and private sectors can work together to forge solutions.
It also will examine how Ohio’s success story can be a prologue to a much larger narrative in which other states and regions can create public-private partnerships. Plans for action will be launched at an American Energy and Manufacturing Competitiveness Summit this year in Washington.
We have a once-in-a-century opportunity. Market forces and global needs have converged, creating momentum for investment in — and the development, manufacture, and deployment of — clean-energy and energy-efficient technologies.
At the same time, low-cost domestic energy can help manufacturers cut costs and improve their competitiveness. It’s time to form partnerships across the country that leverage energy to energize our economy.
Deborah Wince-Smith is president and CEO of the Council on Competitiveness. Dr. Lloyd Jacobs is president of the University of Toledo and a member of the council.