Economic forecast for the Great Lakes Bay Region? Very bright

To economic development officials in the Great Lakes Bay Region, polycrystalline silicon is just another way of saying steady solar-powered economic growth.

Polycrystalline silicon--used in electronics and the manufacture of solar products--also happens to be in such high demand right now that Hemlock Semiconductor Corp. can't make it fast enough.

"We're effectively sold out for the foreseeable future," says Jarrod Erpelding, U.S. communications manager for Dow Corning. "That gives you an idea of the kind of demand for the material right now. We can't make enough of it. There's more demand than there is supply."

Hemlock Semiconductor, which will turn 50 this year, is a joint venture of Dow Corning and two Japan-based firms--Shin Etsu Handotai Co., Ltd., and Mitsubishi Materials Corporation-- based in Thomas Township in Saginaw County.

The company also happens to be the world's largest manufacturer of polycrystalline silicon. The material is a silver, rock-like substance, and roughly one out of every three electronic devices in the world contains polycrystalline silicon that was made at the Saginaw County-based facility.

Polycrystalline silicon also is used in the manufacture of about one-third of solar panels made by companies worldwide. But it wasn't always that way. Just five or six years ago, the majority of the polycrystalline silicon manufactured at Hemlock Semiconductor was sold to the electronics industry. Now, more than half of the company's polycrystalline silicon is sold to the growing solar industry market.

That staggering growth spurt in solar-related sales is due in large part to overseas demand from Japan, China, Korea, Germany, Spain, and other European and Asian countries.

The growth also shows no signs of slowing down. It is projected that the solar industry will continue to grow at a rate of 10 to 20 percent annually.

To keep up with the demand, Hemlock Semiconductor has invested a large amount of money to expand and increase its manufacturing capacity. Along with Dow Corning, the company has invested $4.5 billion into the expansion of its facilities, with about $2.5 billion of that amount going to the world headquarters in Thomas Township.

And despite challenging economic conditions in the region over the past couple of years, the expansion of the facility has meant the creation of about 1,200 jobs, and the addition of about 1,000 temporary construction jobs for the duration of the expansion project.

But the growth and expansion of Hemlock Semiconductor is only a harbinger of things to come in the Great Lakes Bay Region, according to company officials and economic development officials in Saginaw, Midland, and Bay counties.

The expansion of Hemlock Semiconductor--along with targeted marketing efforts on the part of economic development organizations in the Great Lakes Bay Region--is helping to grow an entire chain of solar companies in the region. Attracted by the prospect of locating near the world's largest manufacturer of polycrystalline silicon, a number of solar-related industries already are starting to locate and open up in the region.

The automotive industry has helped power the region's economy for decades, but economic development officials are hoping the region's growing solar industry will help recharge the economy and turn the Great Lakes Bay Region into a Silicon Valley of solar power.

Although the United States was a lead innovator in solar technology when it first developed, it is really a new and growing industry for the United States, says Scott Walker, CEO of Midland Tomorrow. It's a new industry that is heavily dependent on research and development, and "it is high technology based."

And while the automotive industry will continue to play a role in the region's economic future, solar "is a large component of what the economy will be based on in the future," Walker says.

And Walker isn't the only one who sees the picture developing that way.

"We want to be the renewable energy leaders for the state, the Midwest, the United States and the world," says Greg LaMarr, communications manager for Saginaw Future. "We're trying to bring the whole solar supply chain here."

The coordinated push to re-brand the region into a solar hub began about two years ago when economic development officials from Saginaw Future, Midland Tomorrow, and Bay Future decided to pool their resources and efforts to attract more solar companies to the region. Called Michigan Great Lakes Bay Solar Advantage, the branding effort--which uses the slogan "Locate at the Source"--appears to be working. And it's already bringing more jobs and economic activity into the region.

"I think it's been successful, and I do think it's gaining momentum," says Fred Hollister, president and CEO of Bay Future.

The evidence is mounting.

There's GlobalWatt, a solar technology company that decided to locate its California-based headquarters in Saginaw in 2010. Now operating its solar parts facility in the former Enterprise Automotive Systems building, the company is expected to bring about 500 jobs to the area in the next five years. Last November, the company--which assembles solar modules--announced that it was going to start building mobile solar systems that provide off-the-grid power to a number of industries and sectors, including recreation, construction, disaster relief, and the military.

Then there's Evergreen Solar, a manufacturer of solar cells that opened a $55 million plant in Midland in 2009 in the Eastwick Industrial Park. The company makes high-temperature filaments, which are used in wafers to create solar panels. The company also uses chemicals produced by Dow Corning to make its products, as well as silicon carbide-coated wire used to produce the wafers.

Also in Midland is a company called Midland Solar Applications, which has installed a solar array to supply and sell electricity to Consumer's Energy. The company is located in the MidMichigan Innovation Center and has plans to research, design, and install solar panel arrays for residential and industrial uses.

Dow Chemical also is jumping into the solar market. In 2011, the company plans to start selling DOW™ POWERHOUSE™ Solar Shingles. The solar shingles, which can be installed on roofs like ordinary ones, will make it possible for homeowners to turn sunlight into electricity. Company officials are expecting the product to represent an estimated $5 billion market by 2015. The Dow Solar manufacturing facility, which will be located in Midland, also is expected to bring more than 1,200 jobs to the Great Lakes Bay Region by 2014.

Also on the region's solar industry horizon is a Georgia-based solar cell manufacturer. Last year, Suniva announced plans to build a new manufacturing plant in Saginaw County. The company, which plans to use a Department of Energy loan guarantee program, would create about 500 new jobs, and 2,000 indirect jobs for the region. Officials are still waiting on final word from the Department of Energy.

Overall, the region can expect to see an increase in employment opportunities in the solar sector, Hollister says.

"Employment will improve in the region as these new companies come on line," he says.

There also are other developments that officials hope will encourage more solar industry-related growth in the region.

About two years ago, Dow Corning opened the Solar Solutions Applications Center in Tittabawassee Township. At the facility, Dow scientists work with leading solar manufacturers to develop next-generation solar technologies. It is hoped that some of these new technologies also will lower the cost of going solar for homeowners and industries. As part of its educational outreach efforts, Dow Corning also opened a facility called the Dow Corning Solar Discovery Center at its corporate center. The facility teaches children and others about solar energy and how the company is involved in the industry.

Among economic development officials there also is talk of developing a solar energy park in the Great Lakes Bay Region. As well, area colleges and universities like Saginaw Valley State University and Delta College now offer classes and specialized curriculums that are teaching students the skills they need to work in the solar industry and in the renewable energy field.

While economic development officials concede that growth in solar industry is slower than first anticipated due to economic conditions, they still see a bright, solar-powered future for the region.

"We're at the very start of the solar industry process," Erpelding says. "We believe that the world's thirst for clean energy will continue to grow."


01 Scott Walker, CEO of Midland Tomorrow

02 Fred Hollister, CEO of Bay Future.

03 Donated by Dow Corning, solar panels installed at Dow Diamond, home of the Loons minor league baseball team, serves as an educational display for the public while offsetting the use of electricity to power the team's scoreboard.

04 Dow Chemical is developing a solar shingle that can be installed on any roof using the same installation techniques as conventional shingles.

05 JoAnne Crary, CEO of Saginaw Future.
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