Toledo Solar starts solar panel production

By Jay Skebba / The Blade
Thu, 21 May 2020 11:30:00 GMT


American solar panel manufacturers don't have the best track record, but a new company operating in Perrysburg believes it has found a winning formula.

The Atlas Venture Group is leading a $30 million initiative to produce cadmium telluride (Cad-Tel) solar panels operating as Toledo Solar, Inc. The new company acquired the assets of Willard & Kelsey Solar Group in May, 2019.

Atlas chairman Aaron Bates, a native Toledoan, said the process was long and his team did its due diligence before going all in.

"Generally speaking, if someone tells you there's a manufacturing facility that's been mothballed for several years, I'll tell you there's not much value left in that company," Mr. Bates said. "That wasn't necessarily the case with Willard & Kelsey. I took a tour and became very interested."

Toledo Solar will begin shipping Tier 1 panels next month and has already secured $800 million in purchase orders for solar panels, power converters, and energy storage systems. The company has 25 employees, but expects that number to grow to 70 by the end of the year at the 300,000-square-foot facility.

Toledo Solar's annual manufacturing capacity will start at 100 megawatts. Based on current orders and schedules, the company expects to increase annual output to 850 megawatts by 2026, which is enough electricity to power 170,000 homes.

Mr. Bates admits he "wasn't much of a solar guy" once upon a time, didn't know much about the industry, and actually had a negative outlook on it. That changed over time as he began talking with folks from the University of Toledo, including engineer Jim Appold, who developed the Oliver House and Maumee Bay Brewing Co.

Mr. Bates relied on those he met along the way in his career before deciding to start Toledo Solar.

“Toledo Solar has excellent technology with roots in the wellspring of innovation created by Harold McMaster, Norman Nitschke, Al Compaan and many others in the region," said Michael Heben, director of the University of Toledo’s Wright Center for Photovoltaics Innovation and Commercialization. "Solar is in Toledo’s DNA. First Solar is the domestic leader in utility-scale solar, and Toledo Solar can fill that same role for non-utility installations.”

Mr. Bates said his team researched every failed U.S. solar company they could find, including Toledo-based Xunlight, which filed for bankruptcy in 2014. He said companies never had an issue manufacturing solar panels, but struggled to make them cost-effective.

The one exception happens to be in Perrysburg.

"We spent an exhausting amount of time and energy trying to figure out why basically every one failed except First Solar," Mr. Bates said. "First Solar is around 18-20 seconds per panel. There was a Cad-Tel facility that closed in Colorado and theirs was about three minutes."

Toledo Solar's deposition systems are 15 seconds per panel and its assembly systems are another 30 seconds.

Mr. Bates said 93 percent of the world's solar panels are produced in China and made from silicon. He said China is good at mass producing them because their government can subsidize labor and energy, but there are issues with silicon.

He said Cad-Tel is much more cost-effective and a better product.

"When a silicon panel gets 100 degrees Fahrenheit, not only does its performance fall over, but it's not producing electrons," he said. "Some of our warmer states, a lot of installers don't have the right technology and they have upset customers. They expect their energy bills to be lower and they're not."

Demand is on the rise for solar in the U.S., and legislation could continue that trend. In 2018, California passed a law mandating all residential structures under three stories tall to have solar integrated into the roof.

Mr. Bates said the U.S. installed about 15 gigawatts of solar last year, compared to about 1.5 to 2 gigawatts 10 years ago. He said 6-7 gigawatts are serviced by panels made in Asia.

"The more we went down this road, we saw there's an opportunity as a small company to test a market where we can manufacture these solar panels here and sell them to installers here in the non-utility space," Mr. Bates said. "Roughly 50 percent of the U.S. has never seen what we consider to be the world's best solar technology."

Toledo Solar worked with Enhanced Capital to finalize acquisition and secure working capital necessary to restart the plant.

“We are thrilled to be a part of Toledo Solar’s story,” Enhanced Capital director Andrew Eick said. “Our team is constantly looking to support U.S.-based small businesses that bring back jobs and support local communities. Toledo Solar is a perfect example of that.”

From left: Aaron Bates, Chairman and Founder, along with Mark Hartel, President, at Toledo Solar Wednesday, May 20, 2020.

Boone Waldvogel, manufacturing engineer, works on a machine at Toledo Solar Wednesday, May 20, 2020, in Perrysburg. BIZ Solar21

Eric Euler, Vice President of Engineering, operates a machine at Toledo Solar Wednesday, May 20, 2020, in Perrysburg.

A.J. Matthews, research scientist, inspects trial foot squarer at Toledo Solar.