United Solar ramps up to meet high demand

November 3, 2008
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BATTLE CREEK — United Solar Ovonic’s plan to build a 265,000-square-foot, 120-megawatt solar production facility in Battle Creek’s Fort Custer Industrial Park is part of a much larger overall growth strategy to rapidly expand capacity to meet the rising demand for solar products all over the world.

That strategy includes building a new United Solar manufacturing facility about every six months through the year 2012, said Mark Trinske, vice president of investor relations for Energy Conversion Devices of Auburn Hills, the parent company of United Solar.

United Solar manufactures and sells thin-film solar laminates that convert sunlight to energy using proprietary technology. United Solar products, which are distributed globally under the UNI-SOLAR brand, are unique in the market, Trinske said.

Most people are familiar with the glass picture-frame type of solar panel. The UNI-SOLAR product is a thin, flexible laminate that’s 15 inches wide and 18 feet long. Its flexibility allows it to be shipped in rolls and then rolled out and applied directly to the roof of a building, so it looks just like roofing material, Trinske explained. The product is warranted for 20 years.

“It’s attractive from an architectural point of view, and it’s not made with any glass or polysilicon, so we don’t have any breakage issues,” he said. “It’s very lightweight — about half the weight of a glass panel — so it can be applied on roofs that can’t stand the extra weight of glass panels. We’re doing very well with the product on commercial rooftops around the world.”

The Battle Creek facility will create about 350 new jobs at the company within its first three years of operation, and the company will be looking to fill jobs across a broad spectrum, from front-office support staff to technicians to high-level operations managers, Trinske said. He said the company will start construction in a few weeks and, upon receiving certification, will move its equipment in, most likely during the January to March 2009 timeframe. Trinske said the facility will be producing at full capability by September 2010.

In what could prove to be another boon to the Battle Creek area, United Solar has an option to build a second $220 million twin solar cell manufacturing facility in Fort Custer that would create another 350 jobs down the road. As the company continues to grow, it will look for manufacturing sites internationally, as well, Trinske said. Presently, about 70 percent of UNI-SOLAR products are installed in Europe.

“The United States has just passed investment tax credits for solar and alternative energy so that’s going to be a real big plus for us in the United States, and we expect to see a lot more growth here.” Trinske said. “The fact that we’re building to meet demand rather than building with the hope that there will be a market for our product is a real healthy thing for our company and the state of Michigan. The market is already there and we’re trying to run as fast as we can to keep up.” 

Why did the company choose to locate a facility — potentially twin facilities — in Battle Creek? Trinske said the Fort Custer location was ideal because it’s an established area with power, water and sewer in place, which allows for construction to begin very quickly.

“Also, the community as a whole has an excellent, high-quality work force and that’s a big plus for us, too,” Trinske added. “It also has access to local schools. We’ve had success in Greenville where the local community colleges actually added some alternative energy manufacturing classes, so people came right out of the community colleges with a really great applicable education to work with us.”  

Parent company Energy Conversion Devices currently operates two United Solar Ovonic manufacturing facilities in Auburn Hills, two in Greenville and one in Tijuana, Mexico. Trinske said there are efficiencies to be gained by locating twin manufacturing facilities on one site.

“How we benefit there is that sometimes we’ll transfer production from one facility to another,” Trinske said. “We do our production in three phases, so we’ll have things in different stages of production where sometimes we can move the solar cells or move some of the product over to a different location, and that enables us to be more efficient at all of our locations.”

According to the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the Michigan Economic Growth Authority approved a state tax credit valued at $17.3 million over 20 years. A $12.6 million federal Community Development Block Grant approved by the MEDC and awarded to Calhoun County will go toward infrastructure improvements to support the new plant. Additionally, both the MEDC and city support a recently approved15-year, tax-free Renaissance Zone and property tax abatements for the site, which will be worth an additional $67 million to the company.

“We’ve had an excellent relationship with the state of Michigan in terms of the state supporting our business and wanting to be a significant player in the alternative energy field,” Trinske said.

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