Jul 25, 2005

Toledo: A Rust Belt City Considers Alternative Fuel Technologies


Gasoline prices in excess of two dollars a gallon have once again brought the issue of America’s dependence on oil – and foreign oil in particular – to the attention of the average consumer. The instability in the Middle East, a recovering US economy, and the rise of China as an industrial powerhouse are among the reasons for petroleum prices approaching $60 per barrel. Some analysts are projecting $80-$100 per barrel prices in the next year.

However, for Toledoans, the rising cost of operating our favorite obsession – the ubiquitous automobile - supersedes any curiosity in geopolitics or economics. The high gas prices sparked considerable interest in hybrid vehicles, which employ both gasoline and electric motors. The concern over energy costs has also reawakened interest in the development of alternative forms of energy, as well as how Toledo might position itself in such a way as to capitalize on these emerging energy technologies and industries.

The advent of the personal computer sparked the birth of a host of new industries, including semiconductor production, software design, and network technologies. Toledo, for the most part, missed out on the PC boom; as a region known for heavy industry, strong unions, and a perceived lack of highly-skilled workers, Northwest Ohio did not emerge as a top contender for research, development, and production facilities built by technology giants such as IBM or Microsoft.

One of the regions most closely associated with the tech boom is the so-called Silicon Valley in California. Located south of San Francisco, the region’s technological dominance and regional prosperity grew from its close proximity to Stanford University.
Like Silicon Valley, Northwest Ohio could benefit from association with university-inspired research. The influx into an institution such as the University of Toledo of government research dollars for developing alternative energy sources and technology could pay tremendous dividends to a community such as Toledo.

“With the decline of our manufacturing base over the past three decades, Toledo has experienced net job losses,” said Toledo City Council member Ellen Grachek. “Research and development of alternative energy technology could bring a significant number of high-paying industrial jobs to the region.”

UT boasts one of the nation’s finest photovoltaic research groups, led by Professor Alvin Compaan. His group, which has secured millions of dollars in research grants over the past decade, has made tremendous strides in improving the efficiency of solar panels. Compaan indicated that the grants totaled over six million dollars in just the past three years.

“Research grants in thin-film photovoltaics continue to grow,” said Compaan. “By capitalizing on these grants, the University of Toledo has achieved a level of national prominence in the field.”

The Apollo Alliance is a national coalition of business, labor, environmental and political groups with the common goals of building a stronger economy through the development of alternative energy sources. The group calls for massive investment in the alternative energy sector: specifically, $30 billion per year for 10 years.

As a city in the middle of the Rust Belt, Toledo would certainly benefit by becoming a leader in the Apollo Alliance movement. Research dollars could position the University of Toledo on the cutting edge of alternative energy technology development, and the growth of hydrogen, solar panel, and wind turbine industries could bring much-needed jobs to the Toledo area. The major problem, according to Grachek, lies in local leaders who lack the necessary foresight to envision a changing world.

“There is a tendency to practice ‘business-as-usual’ politics in this area,” she said. “For Toledo to capitalize on opportunities in the emerging alternative fuel industries, local leaders must recognize that these industries offer tremendous economic potential.”

Toledo boasts a number of advantages in any quest to posit itself as a forward-looking community seeking a role in the development of alternative energy technology. Hydrogen production requires access to large quantities of water; through the process of electrolysis, electricity is added to water and it is separated into oxygen and hydrogen. With its close proximity to Lake Erie, Toledo certainly meets this criterion.

With a vision of a hydrogen-powered world, McMaster Energy Enterprises of Toledo hopes to capture the emerging hydrogen fuel market. The company has developed a device known as the HyOxy Gas generator, which can convert any existing gasoline-powered car or truck into a hybrid hydrogen-gasoline vehicle. Located on Dorr Street, the firm is beginning to experience significant interest in the apparatus, according to company president Norman Johnston.

The generation of electricity through wave power is another emerging technology that Toledo might tap into. Most experimental designs involve some form of wave-driven turbine that produces electricity, and the waves of Lake Erie might one day be harnessed by electric utilities as a renewable energy source.

Driving through the rural sections of Northwest Ohio, a motorist is likely to see a great number of cornfields. These fields may one day supply a good deal of the corn used in the production of ethanol, a type of alcohol that can be used as a cleaner-burning fuel. Most standard gasoline blends currently include ethanol, but a fuel known as E-85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) is emerging as the industry standard for flexible fuel vehicles, or FFVs. These vehicles are designed to run on a variety of fuel formulations, and produce a much lower level of pollutants than traditional gasoline-powered vehicles.

An example of the movement by municipalities toward alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs) is found in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The city has begun to replace traditional vehicles with vehicles that use biodiesel fuel. In addition, the city is building two biodiesel fueling stations, with the first coming on line this December, according to city energy coordinator Dave Konkle.

Contrary to popular misconception, the Toledo area is a good candidate to become a major producer of solar power, according to UT’s Compaan.

“Thin-film solar panels do not necessarily need direct sunlight in order to efficiently produce electricity,” he said. “Flat-panel photovoltaics actually accept scattered sunlight on hazy and cloudy days. Toledo is thus able to generate 75-80% of the power produced by an equivalent solar panel in sunny desert regions, such as Arizona or California.”

The Toledo area also boasts one of the most advanced thin-film solar panel production facilities in the world: Perrysburg Township’s First Solar LLC, formerly known as Solar Cells, Inc. The plant is one of the three largest in the world, according to company spokesperson Paula Vaughnn.

“We are experiencing rapid growth,” Vaughnn said. “Last year First Solar produced 3 megawatts of panels, and this year we will manufacture twice as many panels.” Vaughnn declined to release sales figures for the privately-held company, but indicated that over 150 people are employed at the local facility.

Solar Cells, the company’s forerunner, got its start at the University of Toledo in the late eighties. Public and private research dollars provided the necessary startup capital, and the firm is now poised to become the largest producer of thin-film solar panels in the world.

Not content with merely leading one of the nation’s leading solar research teams, UT’s Compaan is building a new home in Spencer Township for his family with energy-efficient lighting, solar panels, and energy-management technology. “The State of Ohio offered incentives last year for individuals and groups to invest in alternative energy technologies,” he said. “We expect that our home will produce as much energy as we consume.”

Solar panels will grace the roof of Sylvania’s United Church of Christ, on Erie St. The 7-kilowatt system will produce over 10,000 kilowatts of power per year, according to the Reverend Bill Chidester.

“The church feels that renewable solar power symbolized a covenant of responsibility with our community,” he said. “Not only does this investment promote a cleaner environment, but it is a symbol of good stewardship of the planet’s resources.”

Local efforts at producing renewable energy are not limited to solar power. The city of Bowling Green, which operates its own municipal electric utility, installed two 1.8 megawatt wind turbines last year. The turbines are located at the Wood County landfill on US-6 and Tontogany Road. Peak electricity production by the turbines has supplied enough energy to the grid to power over 1,200 homes, according to city utilities director Daryl Stockburger.

The question of whether Toledo’s business and government leaders will recognize the opportunities afforded by emerging technologies in alternative energy remains to be answered.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting post.

Lisa Renee said...

I'm impressed, and you know that doesn't happen often.


historymike said...

Thanks for the very kind words.

I may not be able to get my head through the virtual doorway...

Frank said...

HistoryMike, my first visit to your blog & am impressed.

This topic in particular caught my attention as I recently wrote the Rocky Mountain Institute asking them to help us with an initiative similar to one they led for the Cuyahoga Valley. See the report on the RMI website here

I'll let you know when we get something firm.

Grachek, Gerken, Kaptur and I are working together on alt energy for our community.

Anonymous said...


you mentioned First Solar was earlier known as Solar Cells Inc.

There is a company in Croatia by the name of Solar Cells which is into thin film modules. Is this the same company that you were talking about ?

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