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Published: Wednesday, 7/30/2008

Solar start-up eyeing Perrysburg

BY LARRY VELLEQUETTE
AND GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITERS

Ohio officials have approved tax credits for a Toledo start-up firm that is considering Perrysburg for a $105 million plant that would have 400 employees making make low-cost solar-energy panels.

A company official said yesterday that no decision has been made about where to situate the plant and that the firm continues to consider offers from other states and Canada.

But there are strong signs that the company, Willard & Kelsey Solar Group LLC, is leaning toward a former television components plant on Progress Drive, off State Rt. 25 in Perrysburg.

The Ohio Tax Credit Authority agreed this week to provide a credit against state income taxes worth 60 percent of Ohio payroll taxes withheld from employees. The job creation tax credit would last for 10 years.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency approved a permit April 24 for the firm to operate around-the-clock producing 240 panels an hour at the Perrysburg factory, which formerly housed Delafoil Inc.

Mohammad Smidi, an official at the EPA office in Bowling Green, said a company executive told him this month that Willard & Kelsey planned to begin operations there as early as late August.

Company executives have told Perrysburg officials that they intend to seek a 10-year, $177,000 job-creation grant as well as assistance with road and traffic improvements.

But no formal application has yet been filed, said John Alexander, city administrator.

The former Delafoil operation was purchased this year by a firm linked to Michael Cicak, who is leading the investment group behind Willard & Kelsey. Mr. Cicak is a veteran of the solar energy industry who worked for many years with the late Harold McMaster, a Toledo inventor who founded the firm that became solar energy giant First Solar Inc.

Keith Guenther, director of operations at Willard & Kelsey, said the company continues to work with development officials in Columbus, Wood County, and in other locations under consideration. He declined to characterize the competitiveness of Ohio's offer.

" I can't say because it undermines the whole process," Mr. Guenther said.

The firm is also considering sites in Canada as well as Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, and Michigan, the Ohio Development Department said.

The EPA permit indicates that the firm plans to make solar panels using newer, low-cost thin-film technology similar to that used at First Solar.

The origin of the firm's name is unclear. But Willard Street and Kelsey Avenue is an intersection in East Toledo near where Mr. Cicak lived as a youth.

According to the Ohio Department of Development, Willard & Kelsey was formed "for the purposes of developing and manufacturing solar panels for worldwide distribution."

If the firm chooses Perrysburg, the city would become the base of corporate operations as well as of production and research, Development Department documents state.

The $105 million investment would include $7 million to buy the factory, $7.3 million for renovations, and $89 million for machinery.

The tax credits, approved on Monday, are to begin in January and stretch through December, 2018.

The company told the state it plans to create 400 full-time jobs within three years of opening and retain ten full-time jobs. The average wage of the new jobs will be $21.25 and hour.

Two other solar-panel plants are either operating or under way in metro Toledo. Phoenix-based First Solar Inc., which last year had the fastest-growing stock on Wall Street, produces more than 2 million panels a year at its U.S. plant, in Perrysburg Township.

Most of the two-foot-by-four-foot panels are shipped overseas to commercial solar installations.

Xunlight Corp., led by a researcher from the University of Toledo, plans to begin panel production this year at a factory off Nebraska Avenue in Toledo.

And a unit of Q-Cells AG, the German company that is Europe's largest manufacturer of solar panels, has teamed up with a local firm to operate a research and development center in Perrysburg that specializes in new technology that holds promise of reducing production costs.

Contact Gary Pakulski at:

gpakulski@theblade.com

or 419-724-6082.



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