Clean Energy Technology Could Be Next Wave of U.S. Manufacturing Leadership

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Sheet Metal Fabricating

As demand for green technology rises throughout the world, an opportunity is emerging for the U.S. to become the leader in manufacturing products for a 21st century clean energy economy.

By Mark Shortt
Editorial Director, Design-2-Part Magazine

American manufacturing was vital to the formation of the nation's middle class, and it has always played a critical role in supporting U.S. national security and defense objectives. As the nation looks toward the future, it's becoming increasingly clear that a healthy and strong U.S. manufacturing base will be crucial to achieving another type of national security: energy independence. With demand for clean and renewable energy on the rise both domestically and internationally, the U.S. has a vast, underutilized manufacturing infrastructure already in place that can be called upon to produce the components needed for clean energy power systems in the U.S. and throughout the world.

Pat Agudow, vice president of administration at Shelton, Conn.-based OPEL Solar, Inc. (www.opelinc.com), believes that with a little more legislative support for renewable energy at the federal level, clean energy manufacturing can provide a big boost to the U.S. economy by bringing idled factories back to life. "You will see the solar industry, and other types of renewables, absorbing many, many jobs of people that have been displaced from, say, the auto industry, and from other types of U.S. manufacturing," Agudow told Design-2-Part. "Really, that's where the spurring of the economy is going to come from." Agudow's colleague, OPEL Solar Director of Engineering Ed Linke, agrees, adding that support is needed at all levels of government, right down to the city level.

"In cities like Detroit, there are a lot of factories without work that have been abandoned," said Linke. "Tax incentives would bring industry back into those cities, which would bring employment back in. It could be a very big growth area. In Ohio, they are available at certain levels. The city fathers in every city need to consider this for the well-being of their city."

Tax incentives and other public policy support are widely seen as crucial to giving U.S. clean tech (green tech) companies--already recognized as leaders in technology innovation--the boost they need to bring their products to market through large-scale manufacturing.

Solar Startups Collaborating with Auto Suppliers to Produce Parts at U.S. Metal Stamping Facilities

Some solar technology innovators are getting to market quickly and cost-effectively by tapping manufacturing expertise and capacity previously utilized by the automotive industry. Rather than building new production facilities or buying new equipment to bring their products to market, these companies are saving the costs of construction and capital equipment--and speeding time to market--by working with automotive suppliers. The idea is to make use of proven automotive manufacturing techniques--such as sheet metal stamping and welding--at plants with existing capacity. The mutually beneficial relationship also provides the automotive supplier with a strategic opportunity to diversify into a strong new emerging market.

Skyline Solar , a Mountain View, Calif.-based manufacturer of High Gain Solar (HGS) arrays, announced last October that it had selected Cosma International (www.cosma.com) to manufacture and assemble the reflective racking and structural components of its High Gain Solar (HGS) System. Cosma, an operating unit of Magna International, Inc., and a longtime supplier to the automotive industry, is currently manufacturing the components at its U.S. metal stamping facilities in Troy, Michigan. The project marks the first commercial manufacturing agreement for Skyline Solar, a venture-funded startup that came out of stealth mode last May, when it announced that it had received $24.6 million in Series A venture financing and entered pilot manufacturing in the U.S. and Asia.

In an email to Design-2-Part, Bob MacDonald, CEO and co-founder of Skyline, said that Skyline chose Cosma to manufacture and assemble the components because it was looking to achieve "quicker time to market and the ability to leverage a manufacturing partner with deep experience in large metal forming and subsystem manufacturing," as well as a logistics supply chain. Among the benefits that Skyline reaps, he said, are scalability and reliability.

"By utilizing existing manufacturing capacity and an easily replicated manufacturing process, incorporating widely available raw materials, Skyline leverages the immense capability and scale of the worldwide automotive supply chain," MacDonald wrote. "By doing so, Skyline is able to reach a volume curve competitive with conventional PV approaches at one-tenth the cost. Only by tapping existing global supply chains will the solar industry scale to meet the challenge of worldwide demand for renewable energy."

According to Skyline, its unique pre-engineered and modular design maximizes the performance of system components while minimizing the use of materials--such as silicon--that contribute to solar price volatility. Skyline HGS reportedly uses 10 percent of the silicon of a traditional flat panel system, while significantly improving energy output per gram of silicon. By minimizing the amount of high-cost materials, using a pre-engineered design, and utilizing existing U.S. manufacturing capacity, Skyline says that it's able to significantly reduce the capital expenditures associated with solar system manufacturing and installation.

MacDonald stated that Cosma's manufacturing capabilities are well suited to meeting Skyline's requirements for its HGS arrays. The Skyline HGS system combines the solar optics and structural rack in an array measuring about 8 feet by 20 feet--almost exactly the size of a car. "It's well suited to the ‘design rules' of an auto assembly line and decomposes into modules that fit into standard auto line metal forming machines, like presses and assembly robot stations," he wrote. "These are machines that traditionally press out body components, like doors or auto hoods, and assemble complete car bodies."

In a December 31, 2009 blog post entitled "Auto Industry May be Key to Renewables" (http://blog.cleantechies.com), MacDonald praised what he called "the mutually beneficial relationship between the emerging green economy and the existing U.S. manufacturing infrastructure." The benefits for Skyline, he wrote, "were simple: A greener, quicker, and cheaper way to bring its HGS system to market."

"As the U.S. moves full force toward renewable energy, we need to consider not only the products we use, but the manufacturing process behind the products," he blogged. "But building new solar manufacturing facilities is not the ideal ‘green' method, especially when fully developed plants are sitting idle across the country. On top of the environmental concerns, utilizing existing plants can help move the process forward much more quickly and with less capital."

Last fall, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Stirling Energy Systems (SES; www.stirlingenergy.com) signed a long-term supply contract with Livonia, Mich.-based Tower Automotive (www.towerautomotive.com) for production and assembly of the mirror facet component of Stirling's SunCatcherTM concentrating solar power (CSP) system. Several months earlier, SES broke the news that it had refined the design of the SunCatcher with the help of Sandia National Laboratories, ensuring that the upgraded system would allow for a high rate of production and cost reduction (see Solar Power Collection Dishes Designed for High-Volume Production). According to SES, the revised design offers improved optics, 60 percent fewer engine parts, and fewer mirror facets (40 instead of 80). The company also stated that more than 90 percent of the SunCatcher components will be manufactured in North America.

Each of the 40 mirror facets comprises three major components: the rib support, metal substrate, and mirrors. According to SES, the mechanical support structure for each mirror facet is similar to that of an automobile hood, which has a ribbed support under the sheet metal and shaped sheet metal over the top. The rib support and the metal substrate are stamped to exacting tolerances, then attached using what the company calls "a combination of innovative processes." A new assembly technique, developed for this solar technology, is then used to attach the mirrors. When the 40 mirror facets are assembled to form the parabolic-shaped SunCatcher dish, the mirror surface reflects the sun's energy into the power conversion unit (PCU) at the end of the metal boom. The Stirling engine inside the PCU converts the sun's intense heat to efficiently drive a 25kW generator.

Stirling saw a good match between the refined design of its SunCatcher dish and Tower Automotive's proven experience in designing and manufacturing structural and exterior automotive stampings. The company's sourcing strategy targets the manufacturing process experience and high-volume expertise of key supplier partners to accelerate the commercialization of the SunCatcher. "By leveraging the capabilities and experience of Tower Automotive, a leading auto supplier, SES is establishing a high-quality, low-cost supply chain that is strategically aligned with the company's goals of achieving rapid and scalable production of SunCatchers," said Jeff Collins, Stirling Energy Systems vice president of global supply chain and a strategic sourcing veteran, in a statement announcing the SES-Tower partnership. "Automotive suppliers are experienced and proven in high-volume production, and we benefit from their design, engineering, and manufacturing expertise while delivering an aggressive cost-down roadmap."

Printing Equipment Manufacturer Producing Turbine Components for Wind Power OEM

The automotive industry isn't the only industry that stands to benefit from strategic sourcing strategies currently being employed by companies looking to bring renewable energy technologies to market. A New Hampshire company known for manufacturing printing equipment is applying its technical know-how to produce an electromechanical component that's vital to the performance of mid-scale wind turbines. Goss International, a specialist in the manufacture of printing equipment, is using proven licensed designs for 225- and 750-kilowatt turbines to produce nacelles for Aeronautica Windpower at Goss's facility in Durham, New Hampshire. Goss's ability to manufacture precision electromechanical parts reportedly played a key role in Aeronautica's decision to establish a relationship with the company.

"This agreement with Goss International gives us a reliable strategic relationship with a company that has a proven track record in manufacturing precision electromechanical components for commercial and industrial applications," said Aeronautica Windpower President Jeff Warren last fall in a statement announcing the contract award. "The organization in New Hampshire has the expertise, the resources, and the sophisticated infrastructure in place to manage the entire manufacturing process and meet the highest quality standards."

Goss International (www.gossinternational.com), in addition to manufacturing printing equipment, offers contract manufacturing services that include design engineering, machining, powder coating, inspection, and assembly. The company is reportedly using advanced assembly techniques and "many domestic materials" to produce the nacelles for turbines that are scheduled to ship in the spring of this year.

Oregon Iron Works Chosen to Build Commercial Wave Energy Device

Oregon Iron Works (OIW), which built its business providing complex metal fabrication and systems integration services to the hydro-electric, bridge, and civil construction industries, among others, was recently selected by Ocean Power Technologies, Inc. (OPT) to begin building OPT's first commercial wave energy PowerBuoy® system in North America. The Clackamas, Oregon-based metal fabricator will construct the first PowerBuoy system in Phase One of a project that reportedly will eventually include construction and installation of 10 PowerBuoy PB 150 wave energy devices off the Oregon coast near Reedsport, Oregon. According to OPT, the Reedsport wave power station will be the first commercial-scale facility of its type in North America and will generate approximately 1.5 megawatts of electricity.

Oregon Iron Works (www.oregoniron.com) is a complex metal fabrication specialist and systems integrator with precision machining capabilities. Its experience is said to include "all levels of metal fabrication, from custom design and prototype development to large-scale production, outfitting, and testing." The company, which also has manufacturing facilities in Vancouver, Washington, serves a variety of demanding industries ranging from hydro-electric, bridge, and civil construction, to marine, aerospace, defense, and renewable energy. Much of the company's work for the renewable energy industry is concentrated in ocean energy, where recent projects have enabled OIW to gain greater visibility as a "green tech" manufacturer.

"Our workers are helping the Pacific Northwest become the center of excellence in green tech/clean tech manufacturing, and we are proud to continue that tradition of leadership in American manufacturing by building the world's best renewable ocean energy devices for OPT," said Oregon Iron Works Chairman, Terry Aarnio, in a statement released by Ocean Power Technologies. "This project demonstrates that Oregon intends to enhance its environmental reputation by building an economy on the leading edge of the green wave."

The PowerBuoy PB150 uses the rise and fall of waves to move the buoy up and down and drive an electric generator inside the buoy. The electricity is then conditioned and transmitted ashore as high-voltage power via an underwater cable. Nine additional PowerBuoys will be constructed and installed under Phase Two of the project.

According to Ocean Power Technologies (www.oceanpowertechnologies.com), its partnership with Oregon Iron Works is a direct result of Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski's leadership in bringing green jobs and renewable energy to the Oregon economy. The company also credited Governor Kulongoski's commitment to the responsible development of wave energy as a commercially viable renewable energy source. "OPT has identified the Oregon Coast as one of the world's top sources for future wave energy development, and Governor Kulongoski's leadership has helped to enable the realization of its potential to create green jobs and prosperous coastal communities," said Mark Draper, CEO of OPT. "We are committed to responsible development of renewable energy resources, and look forward to playing our part in that positive future."

"The partnership that we are developing with OPT and other Oregon companies fits perfectly with our goal of providing jobs for Oregon's green economy," said Governor Kulongoski. "It's exciting to see that Oregon has the chance to play a leading role in the development of this global industry and help achieve our national goals of energy security and reduction of our dependence on fossil fuels."

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