Locals, federal official meet as University of Toledo vies for $46M solar energy grant


Trained as a vascular surgeon to maintain a steely nerve and an even temperament, University of Toledo President Lloyd Jacobs nearly had goose bumps listening to a different President's speech Tuesday night.

As President Obama laid out his plan for America to "win the future" in his annual address to Congress, Dr. Jacobs felt a swirl of emotions when Mr. Obama called for large investments in innovation, education, and clean energy.

"I was gratified," Dr. Jacobs explained Wednesday, "because I thought he was describing the mission of the University of Toledo. It was like a small epiphany that this university's mission was so closely aligned with the agenda of the President of the United States."

Wednesday, Dr. Jacobs was one of the many local officials to meet with John Fernandez, an assistant secretary of commerce for economic development in the Obama Administration. Mr. Fernandez, in Ohio to stump for President Obama's Tuesday night address, was the keynote speaker Wednesday night at the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments' annual general assembly meeting at the Holiday Inn French Quarter in Perrysburg Township.

On the minds of many attendees for Mr. Fernandez's speech was President Obama's call for 80 percent of America's electricity to come from clean-energy sources by 2035. The President also proposed increasing investments in research and development to 3 percent of the nation's gross domestic product.

At UT, many millions of dollars have been spent to research and develop technologies in thin-film photovoltaics, which are used to produce clean solar energy. Local leaders are hopeful the gains UT has made and is making in solar energy -- solar panel giant First Solar was born out of research at UT and rising star Xunlight Corp. is a UT spinoff company -- coupled with the President's announced vision will provide some momentum for the region's struggling economy.

"The President's message should resonate not just in Toledo, but across Ohio and across the country," Mr. Fernandez said in an interview. "The things he talked about in terms of commitments to clean energy, in manufacturing, and the linkages between education and innovation and new job creation, are a lot of the themes that people here are talking about and working on."

As administrator for the U.S. Economic Development Administration, Mr. Fernandez is charged with overseeing resources and programs to help areas devastated by the recession recover and create jobs. Among the EDA's initiatives are to help the private sector partner with public entities and develop regional innovation clusters.

Already the center of an alternative energy cluster as the home of the Wright Center for Photovoltaics, UT is partnering with private-sector solar company Dow Corning Corp. to create a solar mecca of sorts for research and manufacturing.

The university and Dow Corning, of Midland, Mich., have applied for a $46 million grant from the U.S. Dept. of Energy to develop ways to lower the cost of solar panel manufacturing. The pairing, if approved for the grant, would create hundreds of jobs and attract additional outside investment for development -- exactly aligning with the goals announced Tuesday by President Obama.

"If we get it, it would be a game-changer for the community," Dr. Jacobs said.

Officials from the Department of Energy visited UT on Jan. 20. The university and Dow are finalists for the grant, which could be awarded within the next two months.

Mr. Fernandez, whose Commerce Department is not responsible for awarding the energy grant, said the United States needs more grant programs such as this to expand the development of new technologies.

"The President is serious about moving this forward," Mr. Fernandez said. "There was a clear call to move clean-tech forward … but it will take cooperation from Congress."

Toledo Mayor Mike Bell, who attended TMACOG's event Wednesday night, said he thought President Obama's speech was "positive overall," but the mayor was taking a "wait-andsee attitude" when it comes to what the President's words meant for Toledo. A Republican-controlled House of Representatives determined to cut spending could stand in the way of some of the President's intended investments, leaving fewer dollars for universities such as UT to pursue.

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), who was in Washington and spoke with The Blade on her way to vote on legislation at the Capitol, said President Obama's speech was "very good" for Toledo and her entire Ninth Congressional District, which stretches east to Lorain County.

"We're a region that's been innovating in a number of ways that other places haven't even thought of," said Miss Kaptur, highlighting Toledo's history in solar research that dates back to Toledo glass pioneer Harold McMaster.

But Miss Kaptur gave President Obama failing remarks for the portion of his State of the Union address geared toward trade.

The President called for the continued pursuit of international trade agreements similar to the nearly completed deal with South Korea, which he said will support at least 70,000 American jobs.

Miss Kaptur blames Ohio's decades of devastating declines in manufacturing on unfair trade relationships.

She said President Obama's actions and rhetoric on trade have not helped to even the field between manufacturers in Toledo and those in other countries.

"He really doesn't know what he's talking about on trade," Miss Kaptur said of the fellow Democrat and U.S. President.

Contact Joe Vardon at: jvardon@theblade.com, or 419-724-6559.