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Published: Tuesday, 3/9/2010

University of Toledo fights to outpace solar power rivals

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE PROJECTS EDITOR

Last of three parts

The research in solar energy and specifically thin-film photovoltaics at the University of Toledo is a sense of pride on campus, a selling point for state officials to solar companies, and is recognized by many solar-industry insiders throughout the country.

“The University of Toledo pops up even on my radar screen, and I don't have any business out there,” said Dave Christensen, a top engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

But whether it be Mr. Christensen or dozens of other solar experts interviewed by The Blade, institutions such as the University of Michigan, Stanford University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology come to their minds when asked about solar energy research.

In a globally competitive solar industry in which state governments battle to craft the most enticing incentives for solar companies, universities are also fighting for a leg up on competitors.

Their goals are to attract big research dollars, hire the most decorated faculty, make the fastest technological discoveries, have those discoveries inspire new businesses, and create jobs in their regions.

This is undoubtedly true for UT, which produced Xunlight Corp., is linked to solar panel giant First Solar Inc., and has raised $37 million in grants and contracts for solar energy research the last three years — more than it raised in its other clean energy research sectors combined.

But just a short drive north to Ann Arbor is the University of Michigan, which has been awarded $23 million since June for its solar research. Officials at MIT estimate the school receives between $15 million and $20 million a year for solar-related research.

Long a successful solar energy research institution, UT must work diligently to avoid falling behind in a crowded solar field.

Nina McClelland, interim dean of UT's School of Solar and Advanced Renewable Energy, said the university recognizes it needs to continue to “beef up” research and further advance photovoltaics technology. “We've got to find ways to cut cost and increase desirability,” she said.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Energy established 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers at universities and national laboratories to study ways to reduce the cost of alternative energies. Hosts for these centers were awarded millions of dollars over a period of five years for the research.

Graduate student Lila Dahal modifies equipment at the University of Toledo's Clean and Alternative
Energy Incubator. UT has raised $37 million for solar research in the last three years. Graduate student Lila Dahal modifies equipment at the University of Toledo's Clean and Alternative Energy Incubator. UT has raised $37 million for solar research in the last three years.
THE BLADE/ANDY MORRISON Enlarge | Buy This Photo

UT applied to be a Frontier center, but was denied.

The University of Michigan, meanwhile, was designated a Frontier center and won a $19.5 million grant.

“It's a significant leg up for our technology and for our team building at the university,” said Stephen Forrest, vice president of research at Michigan and a solar company executive. “It also leverages our ability to bring in companies in the solar industry because of the work being done here.”

UT President Lloyd Jacobs was not concerned about his institution being passed over as a Frontier center.

‘Flexibility' cited

Dr. Jacobs, who said one of his university's greatest strengths is its “flexibility” to adapt to circumstances surrounding it, said UT's photovoltaics research was the “finest in the world.”

Megan Reichert-Kral, head of UT's energy incubation program, says UT must be a smart steward of the aid it receives. Megan Reichert-Kral, head of UT's energy incubation program, says UT must be a smart steward of the aid it receives.
THE BLADE/ANDY MORRISON Enlarge | Buy This Photo

“You hit on only a certain number of these,” Dr. Jacobs said of UT's Frontier bid. “You fill out as many applications as you can, and you win some and you lose some.”

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the universities picked as lead Frontier centers to study solar and other forms of renewable energy were Arizona ($15 million), Arizona State ($14,020,000), Stanford ($20 million), California Institute of Technology ($15 million), California-Berkeley ($10, million), California-Santa Barbara ($19 million), California-Los Angeles ($11.5 million), Southern California ($12.5 million), Delaware ($17.5 million), Northwestern ($38 million for two centers), Purdue ($20 million), Notre Dame ($18.5 million), Louisiana State ($12.5 million), MIT ($36.5 million for two centers), Massachusetts ($16 million), Maryland ($14 million), Michigan ($19.5 million); Michigan State ($12.5 million), Washington-St. Louis ($19.9 million), North Carolina ($17.5 million), Princeton ($20 million), Columbia ($16 million), Cornell ($17.5 million), New York-Stony Brook ($17 million), Penn State ($21 million), South Carolina ($12.5 million), Texas ($30.5 million for two centers), and Virginia ($11 million).

Xiaoyang Zhu, who is leading 20 researchers in the study of polymer-based solar cells at the University of Texas, said larger institutions like his have an advantage because of their comprehensive research programs.

“You need the expertise to be competitive,” Mr. Zhu said. “For smaller programs, they may have individuals who are as qualified as anybody. It's the ability to attract a collection of the finest minds that's important.”

14 researchers

The University of Toledo has 14 researchers dedicated to photovoltaics research and development.

Peter Green, who directs Michigan's Frontier research center, said making renewable energy more efficient is a “significant problem” that likely won't be solved by any single institution.

“The key thing is we have good work going on at a lot of places,” Mr. Green said.

Because of the high number of universities interested in solar research — some of them with deep pockets — the University of Toledo needs to make each and every dollar count, according to Megan Reichert-Kral.

“We try to be very smart stewards with our money,” said Ms. Reichert-Kral, the University of Toledo's director of incubation, which includes the Clean and Alternative Energy Incubator. “We're a modest-sized research institution. … We don't have Stanford-Silicon Valley money.”

Tradition in solar research at the University of Toledo dates back more than 20 years, when Alvin Compaan worked with Toledo glass manufacturing pioneer Harold McMaster and Norman Nitschke in developing cadmium telluride technology, which is the basis for First Solar's solar panels.

Xunlight, a company started by UT faculty member Xunming Deng that is developing flexible, lightweight solar panels, was developed out of UT's incubation program. The same goes for Solar Fields LLC, which formed a joint venture with German solar panel-giant Q-Cells AG, known as Calyxo USA Inc.

UT is also consulting with dozens of other companies looking for the next Xunlight. But UT isn't the only institution spinning off solar companies.

Speaking of Stanford and Silicon Valley, SunPower, a global solar cell and panel maker, was born out of the Palo Alto, Calif., university in the late 1980s.

Much more recently, up-and-coming Veranda Solar has emerged from Stanford and its $30 million per year energy research operation.

MIT, with its Nobel Prize winners and National Academy of Science members, has spun off four solar companies in the last three years. Covalent Solar and 1336 Technologies are two of MIT's most prominent solar spinoffs.

Abound Solar is a spinoff solar panel maker from Colorado State that recently opened a 300-employee factory in Longmont, Colo.

Colorado State has received only about $2.6 million over the last three years for its solar research but has the luxury of partnering with Colorado University, MIT, and scientists at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

“We have certainly demonstrated the ability to take our research and develop it into what becomes a viable business,” said Bill Farland, Colorado State's vice president for research.

UT, which has 27 licensed technologies in solar energy, recently lured two scientists from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to join the faculty in Toledo, and is looking to fill three new faculty positions in the recently created School of Solar and Advanced Renewable Energy.

“I think we're doing quite well for a university our size,” said Frank Calzonetti, UT's vice president for research and economic development.

Cooperative efforts

Both Dr. Jacobs and Ms. McClelland also highlighted UT's ability to partner with other institutions as a means for remaining competitive as a photovoltaics research center.

UT's cooperative efforts include working with the Ohio Department of Development, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and the Toledo Regional Growth Partnership to fund research and grow fledgling companies.

Also, UT is one of three locations (Ohio State and Bowling Green State University are the other two) for the Wright Center for Photovoltaics Innovation and Commercialization, a consortium of universities and businesses formed with an $18.6 million grant from Ohio's Third Frontier Program.

Mark Shanahan, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland's top energy adviser, said the state's partnering of solar-studying universities will enable UT and Ohio as a whole to compete with the Stanfords, Michigans, and MITs of the world.

“I think these partnerships are already starting to show some significant advances and cooperation,” Mr. Shanahan said.

Contact Joe Vardon at:jvardon@theblade.comor 419-724-6559.



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