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Green Belt, Rust Belt Stand Side-by-Side to Create Jobs

So long, California. Hello, Michigan. The utility-scale side of the solar industry (aka southern California) is looking to the Midwest for turnkey manufacturing of its solar system components. The Rust Belt, although cinched as tight as it ever has been in response to the gaping holes left by the struggling, heavily outsourced auto industry, does have a powerful duo of benefits to offer Big Solar: a skilled workforce and the existing technology to do the job.

A lot of that manufacturing technology and equipment is wasted or underused in the wake of the auto industry’s decline. The easy scalability and generous tax breaks from Rust Belt states have lured several renewable energy companies to Detroit and other cities in the Midwest and Northeast. A century’s worth of experience building steel and glass components for the auto industry makes Detroit an ideal spot for concentrated solar power (CSP) components.

In Livonia, not far from Detroit, machines at Tower Automotive now stamp steel plates for Stirling Energy Systems. SES SunCatcher systems use large mirrored dishes to concentrate solar radiation onto a Stirling engine containing hydrogen gas. The hydrogen expands in response to the heat, which drives a piston to create electricity. It just so happens that with minimal adjustments, auto plants like Tower Automotive can make several of the components for Stirling systems, saving SES a lot of money in factory construction, workforce training and the myriad of other costs associated with scaling up operations on your own. SES also has parts made in Ohio, Illinois and Indiana.

Skyline Solar, based in Silicon Valley, has also migrated to Michigan to tap into the auto industry. Skyline has signed a deal with Magna International in Troy, MI to make the metal arrays that hold its solar panels. Ohio was one of the first Rust Belt states to land a major solar deal when First Solar opened its plant in Perrysburg. Ohio also enjoys wind turbine and fuel cell manufacturing.

There is a sizable amount of steel and glass in large-scale solar systems, and nobody in America produces steel products as well as Detroit and the Rust Belt. In addition to its services to the solar industry, solar power is providing Detroit with a ray of hope in the midst of the darkest times the region has ever seen. Green Belt companies like Stirling Energy Systems and Skyline Solar are not as of yet pulling the Rust Belt out of harm’s way. SES has added about 40 to 50 jobs where thousands have been lost. But it is a ray of hope, and it does begin to establish a foothold in America’s rather broken heartland and is hopefully a harbinger of green flourishes to come.

Source: LA Times

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