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Toledo tech hub win would bring 9,000 jobs, $4 billion impact

Posted By: The Blade on August 20, 2023.  For more information, please click here to read the source article.

Toledo and northwest Ohio can generate 9,000 jobs and $4 billion in economic impact if designated a federal innovative hub by the U.S. Economic Development Administration, a consortium of local industry and civic leaders said in a grant application.

Moreover, the more than $75 million that the consortium could expect over multiple years would lead to unprecedented technology sharing between the area’s four major glass makers and First Solar to provide the companies with a leg-up in international markets for their respective products, leaders say.

In the grant, the partners have pledged to reduce carbon in their manufacturing processes and work toward tougher and more lightweight glass as a step toward a more environmentally friendly future, said Kyle Sword, R&D director for Toledo-based Pilkington North America.

Pilkington is the leading supplier of glass to solar-panel giant First Solar, which operates three production plants in northwest Ohio and is the largest manufacturer of solar panels based in the United States.

“We would all benefit from thinner, stronger glass,” Mr. Sword said of consortium members.

In a tight, five-page application filed with the EDA last week, and shared with The Blade, the group known as the Northwest Ohio Innovation Consortium lays out why Toledo has the assets, vision, and need to be designated one of 20 cities in the United States as a tech hub.

It describes ambitious goals in the first paragraph of the grant.

“The NW Ohio Innovation Consortium (NOIC) is requesting designation as a Tech Hub to decarbonize the solar panel value chain by accelerating the decarbonization of glass (the bulk of a solar panel) and advanced manufacturing techniques,” the grant says.

“Already the leader in solar R&D and domestic production, northwest Ohio has the capacity and potential to become a self-sustaining global leader in affordable, sustainable solar within seven years,” it states.

The EDA, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, will judge the applications based on which markets have the assets and best chance of making a difference in overall energy consumption, promoting advanced U.S.-based technology and reaching underserved workers and populations.

In all, the EDA plans to select just 20 recipients for tech hub designations, then open those groups to federal funding authorized initially at $500 million but budgeted at $10 billion under the Inflation Reduction Act.

The Toledo group should know if it’s been selected as a tech hub before October, said Roger Smith, the regional innovation officer for the consortium whose regular job is a manufacturing technology leader at global bottle maker O-I Glass in Perrysburg.

Another consortium leader, retired local KeyBank President Jim Hoffman, said the consortium hopes to win more than $100 million from the program over multiple years. The EDA says initial awards will be between $50 million and $65 million per tech hub designee.

That money would go a long way to spur job creation and economic development, said Mr. Hoffman, chairman of the Regional Growth Partnership.

The grant states that innovations in solar and glass will create a combined 9,000 jobs and $4 billion in economic impact while “driving equitable regional growth in an economically distressed area and strengthening U.S. economic and national security through production of the most sustainable solar energy with domestic manufacturing.”

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get a return on investment in technology that will help our glass and solar-energy industries to survive and prosper,” Mr. Hoffman said.

O-I’s Mr. Smith said the heart of Toledo’s proposal is to use a local workforce to find new ways to make thinner glass and use less energy or alternative fuels in the manufacturing process. That would give the region’s solar panel companies, First Solar and Toledo Solar, an edge in marketing a more efficient solar panel to customers worldwide.

“Glass accounts for 97 percent of the weight, 34 percent of the carbon footprint, and 47 percent of the cost of a solar panel,” the Toledo grant application states. “By using renewable energy and other innovations to manufacture lighter, thinner, and stronger glass, solar panels will become even more cost-effective and sustainable, reducing the embodied carbon of glass by up to 80 percent.”

The U.S. solar industry could use a boost — with First Solar doing most of the heavy lifting domestically in an industry where production of solar panels has shifted heavily to China over the past two decades, the grant says.

“The U.S. solar market is exploding — growing 24 percent a year over the past decade and, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, will provide 40 percent of domestic electricity by 2035,” the grant states. “And yet America is not rising to the challenge — U.S. solar production declined from 13 percent of global production in 2004 to less than 1 percent today.”

Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar, whose largest solar-panel manufacturing footprint is in northwest Ohio, makes its panels using cadmium telluride solar that already offers the greenest option among manufacturers globally, said Lou Trippel, First Solar director of global product manufacturing who operates from the company’s Perrysburg offices.

Utilities and customers worldwide are seeking to reduce their carbon footprint wherever possible, making a more lightweight, efficient solar

panel an attractive product, he said.

“The premise of the [grant] program is to take what is already established here — where we have areas of expertise and technology — and work on ways to leverage that leadership,” Mr. Trippel said. He was referring to Toledo’s long history of glassmaking and the area’s emerging expertise in solar energy.

First Solar operates three solar-panel production plants in northwest Ohio, with the latest coming fully online this summer. The company employs 2,128 people locally, he said.

The consortium also is pitching how to train more workers, both production and technical employees, for employers inside the consortium and out. Educational partners are the Toledo Public Schools, the University of Toledo, Bowling Green State University, and Owens Community College.

The four local glassmaking members of the consortium are O-I, Libbey Inc., Owens Corning, and Pilkington North America.

O-I’s Mr. Smith said the grant would be used for worker training and recruitment as well as a variety of collaborative projects to advance glass manufacturing.

For example, each of the glassmakers locally have sophisticated tech centers with labs and, in the case of O-I, pilot glassmaking lines.

Mr. Smith said he envisioned the members experimenting jointly with hydrogen to power the lines, or alternative biofuels, to see if they can produce stronger, thinner glass using cleaner energy sources than natural gas or another fossil fuel.

The participants would likely strike confidentiality and intellectual property agreements to share results and benefit consortium members as a whole, he said.

That’s possible, even likely, since the industrial partners make glass, but they don’t really compete in the marketplace. O-I makes bottles. Libbey makes plateware. Owens-Corning produces fiberglass and building products. And Pilkington makes sheet glass for solar panels and other industrial uses.

Mr. Smith said altogether the companies already spend about $500 million annually on research and development. The grant money would allow the partners to accelerate those developments, he said.

The consortium also is seeking $30 million to $50 million of the $125 million in tech hub money that the state of Ohio this year has set aside for mid-market cities like Toledo and Dayton looking to create jobs through technological breakthroughs.

Thinner, stronger glass would be a game-changer in the marketplace, said Ludovic Valette, O-I vice president and chief technology officer.

He said beverage makers and bottlers worldwide want bottles that use less energy to produce.

And the less they weigh, the more pallets could be put on trucks for shipment to distributors and retailers.

“Thinner, lightweight glass for containers is a top priority,” Mr. Valette said.

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