The Regional Growth Partnership estimates that 6,000 people in the region are employed in the solar energy industry — more than the two largest manufacturers combined.
Five manufacturing plants and six system integration companies in the area are enough to form an industry cluster, says Council member Lindsay Webb.
One solar panel manufacturing company in Perrysburg, Willard & Kelsey Solar Group LLC, was named after two streets in East Toledo by its founder, Michael Cicak.
As a result, Councilman Joe McNamara has submitted legislation asking Mayor Carty Finkbeiner to expend up to $200,000 from the 2009 Capital Improvement Fund for engineers to design plans for a municipal solar field.
By completing the planning and engineering for the project immediately, McNamara says the city may be able to make the project eligible to receive federal funds.
The city and the Building and Construction Trades Department have both submitted proposals to Barack Obama’s transition team for inclusion in the president elect’s federal stimulus package. The list of projects includes the solar field.
A council statement says Obama’s transition team is specifically looking for projects that full under the Department of Energy and ‘should be’ planned, permitted, and engineered, but are only being held from starting within the next 90 days because of a lack of funding. The transition team has requested that submitted projects be “shovel ready.”
A member of Toledo’s council has already proposed that $1 million dollars of the CIP budget be dedicated for a solar field at one of the city’s landfills.
Proponents say the solar field project is energy-related, would create local jobs, save on utility costs, and potentially use locally manufactured solar panels.
“I certainly to have a vision for the country being free of alternative energy,” McNamara said during a meeting of council’s economic development committee Wednesday.
McNamara said he wants to get rid of Toledo’s “rust belt” reputation, take advantage of its trained industrial workforce, and continue momentum created from national publicity describing this region as “The Solar Energy ‘Silicon Valley’ of the United States.”
“The largest project begins with a single step. This project will be a purchase (into the city’s future),” McNamara said. “Most CIP projects have no payback at all. We do not make money from our capital improvement program. Using the money this way is a good way.
“We have an opportunity to lead. Other cities would covet to have the resources we have in Toledo. To date, the city has done nothing to invest in solar energy,” McNamara continued.
“This project has significant tangible benefits as well as showing that we are a showplace for the world; that we are in innovator. We need to be making things that other people want. We can help create that market by starting with a plan.”
Todd Michaelson, the Ohio/Michigan chapter manager for the National Electrical Contractors Association, told committee members that the engineering plans would cost between $55,000 and $65,000, and could be finished in 30 days. Michaelson, who serves on the board for the RGP, said the project could reach the break-even point in 15 years, and with federal subsidies, would pay for itself in even less time.
Michaelson said the contractors association has contributed $3 million from pension funds for Rocket Ventures, a research and development operation. He would like to see a five-acre solar field, which he estimates would cost $5 million, or $1 million per acre.
“We are truly speaking with our wallets as well as our mouths,” Michaelson said. “If we had our local manufacturers involved with this, it would create a meaningful showcase.
“Even if we don’t get federal funding, it’s a project we should do regardless,” Michaelson added. “We’ve talked about Toledo becoming the Saudi Arabia of alternative energy, and this is the catalyst that can make that happen. I truly believe in my heart that this is a project that can make that happen.
“We have architects that can do this, we have the work force that can do this, and it will show that we have the entire package. It is certainly environmentally friendly.”
Council president Mark Sobczak opened the meeting by saying, “If we can put together one-and-a-half square acres of solar energy, we would basically be pulling the switch on (Toledo) Edison.”
But Michaelson stressed that the solar panel field would not take jobs away from the local energy utility sector.
Council members Tom Wizniewski and Michael Collins also expressed support, but both said the city should be concerned about any financial risk before becoming directly involved in the solar energy industry. Collins wanted McNamara to explain in detail what the city’s involvement would be.
“Hypothetically, we can pay $55-65,000, but we’ve got no guarantee this is going to happen,” Collins said. “Are we going to be an Alpha in this project, or are we going to be a Beta in this project. I want to know what is beyond this thing. If we do it, what does that really mean?”
Steve Weathers, RGP president, told council that his organization would be willing to become involved in planning and grant writing.
“It will help drive the mission and success of our organization, obviously,” Weathers said.