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article imageBuilding a solar economy in Michigan Special

By Dan Rafter     May 5, 2009 in Environment
Can the Great Lakes Bay area of Michigan turn away from the state's struggling auto industry and instead embrace solar power? Officials with the region are banking on alternative energy to lift the state out of its economic slump.
JoAnn Crary hasn’t settled for any minor goal. She wants to transform the Great Lakes Bay region of Michigan into the top location for any company that works in the solar power industry.
Crary wants panel manufacturers to think of her swath of Central Michigan when they’re searching for land to build a new headquarters. She wants silicon manufacturers to flock to the region when they need to expand their operations.
And Crary thinks that none of this is unreasonable.
Crary, president of Saginaw Future, the economic development commission for Saginaw County, Mich., envisions a day when dozens of manufacturers set up shop in her region, all to build solar panels, polycrystalline silicon, wafers and everything else needed for the solar power supply chain.
The Great Lakes Bay region is the perfect place to become a major hub of the solar industry, Crary says. The region, located in the center of the state in the Saginaw Bay of Lake Huron, is home to a talented manufacturing base, a number of universities and companies such as Hemlock Semiconductor Corporation, Evergreen Solar and The Dow Chemical Co., all of whom already manufacture essential pieces of the solar power supply chain.
It’s why in February of this year, the three economic development commissions in the region formed a new entity charged with one task: Bring even more solar companies to the area, providing an economic boost in a state that has suffered more than its share during the country’s recession.
“Our goal is to attract the entire solar chain here,” Crary said. “We have one of the highest per capita concentrations of PhDs here. We have universities here. We have Dow Chemical and Dow Corning here. We have engineers here. There are so many creative minds located in this small region. They come together and collaborate on an amazing level. They’ve been able to develop some pretty exciting technologies. Because of all this, this region makes sense for solar companies.”
Saginaw Future, along with the two other Great Lakes Bay area economic development commissions – Midland Tomorrow and Bay Future, Inc. – on Feb. 12 officially launched the Great Lakes Bay Economic Development Partnership. The goal of the group is to attract companies that work in the solar industry to the region.
To help accomplish this, the three commissions have created a Web site, MiSolarAdvantage, to tout the benefits of the region to solar companies. The partnership is also developing marketing materials to highlight the region’s pro-business nature and its quality of life.
The top priority now? The economic development commissions are busy locating and preparing “shovel-ready” sites on which manufacturers and other solar industry companies can immediately set up shop once they decide to move to the region.
Though all of this has cost money – the economic development commissions did shell out dollars to hire site consultants to help them understand better the opportunities in the region for solar companies – region officials say the dollars will have been well spent if the Great Lakes Bay area can attract new employers to the region.
“The outlook on solar, even though we are mired in this global economic crisis right now, is incredibly bright,” said Scott Walker, chief executive officer of Midland Tomorrow. “With that strong outlook and our strong base for that industry, we are hopeful that we can secure a significant amount of new investment and job creation here. We really do think that we have a great ability to be at the center of the solar industry as we move forward.”
Providing a boost to an ailing economy
Michigan has long been known as a key U.S. outpost for the auto industry.
But the auto industry has been suffering a serious decline for decades. As the U.S. recession continues, that decline has only intensified. Today, the U.S. auto industry is teetering.
As a result, Michigan is struggling with soaring job losses. The state’s unemployment rate reached 12.6 percent in March of 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Michigan now has the highest unemployment rate in the country.
This has encouraged Michigan officials to look toward other industries for its future, including solar.
Fred Hollister, president and chief executive officer of Bay Future Inc., said that the number of Michigan residents now involved in auto manufacturing is probably a fourth of what it was 30 years ago.
Auto manufacturing is still important to the region, and will most likely always remain a cog in Michigan’s economy, Hollister said. But state officials – including those working with the Great Lakes Bay Economic Development Partnership – are now looking to supplement it with as many other industries as they can.
“We are still interested in seeing a strong automotive component to the manufacturing base in the region,” Hollister said. “But we are also looking at industries such as solar. That is an emerging industry. We think we’ll see significant growth in the solar industry during the next 100 years. It is more than likely going to be a serious alternative energy source as opposed to some of the more mature energy sources we have now.”
The transition shouldn’t be overly painful, Hollister said. After all, the state has gone through this before: Michigan in the 19th century was known as a logging center before the auto industry took over, Hollister said.
“In the 21st century, we think the emerging industries are going to be things like solar and other alternative energy sources,” he said.
Solar businesses already thriving here
When explaining the draw that the Great Lakes Bay region should have on solar-related companies, Hollister, Crary and Walker point to the firms already successfully doing business in the region.
Hemlock Semiconductor, located in the bay region, has made Michigan the world’s leading exporter of high purity polycrystalline silicon for the semiconductor and solar industries. The company has already invested more than $1 billion to expand its plant capacity, all of which is dedicated to solar technology.
The company is now expanding its existing facility in the Great Lakes Bay area community of Hemlock, Mich. The expansion will increase the plant’s annual capacity to 19,000 metric tons by 2009. Hemlock Semiconductor has also announced plans to build a monosilane production facility co-located inside their existing operations. Monosilane is the essential raw material needed for the production of thin film silicon photovoltaic modules.
Meanwhile, United Solar Ovonics, a thin-film manufacturer, is creating new jobs at its six new plants in Greenville, Mich. United Solar has made headlines by making the solar panels that will soon be installed in the world’s largest rooftop solar power system, a system that will be operating at a General Motors assembly line in Spain.
Then there’s Evergreen Solar, a Massachusetts-based company that has decided to invest more than $55 million into a new production plant in Midland, Mich., the heart of the Great Lakes Bay area.
Evergreen Solar manufactures string ribbon wafers using a proprietary wafer technology. To create the wafers, Evergreen Solar pulls two high-temperature filaments vertically through a silicon melt. The molten silicon solidifies between these filaments.
“This community understands chemical manufacturing,” Posey-Leonhard said. “This community has many people who have that chemical industry background. I’m very excited about the pool of talent we’ll have to gather from as we start hiring individuals for the plant.”
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