Clean Technology Remaking Auto Alley

Clean technologies such as wind and solar energy could bring the auto industry back to life in America’s Rust Belt.

Catherine Tumber, Research Affiliate with MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, believes that renewable clean technology can bring industry and prosperity back to America.

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The Solar Industry in Auto Alley

Today much of what is left of American manufacturing is dispersed throughout the small cities and towns of Auto Alley, an enormous swathe of land grouped between the north-south routes of I-65 (from Gary, Indiana, to Mobile, Alabama) and I-75 (between Flint, Michigan, and Atlanta, Georgia). The now-deconcentrated auto industry is geographically divided roughly between the North and South, with Japanese and other foreign transfer companies predominating in the South and U.S. companies in the North. Thanks to what the industry calls just-in-time sourcing since the 1980s — meaning that parts have to be within a short delivery distance from assembly plants — the more than 3,000 parts suppliers in Auto Alley serve both types of firms. As a result, the auto industry has been shielded from the most extreme forms of offshoring that decimated the electrical and consumer goods industries: three-quarters of the parts destined for U.S. auto assembly plants are made in the United States.

The small industrial cities of Auto Alley and elsewhere, obscured by national media attention given to Detroit’s troubles, can flourish again in new, more sustainable ways. To do so, their supply shops and engineering infrastructure must draw on their strengths to retool and diversify for the emerging renewable energy economy. Even if the automotive industry transitions into clean technology-powered vehicle production, experts say that its supply chain is likely to contract in the face of global competition, making it all the more imperative for its suppliers to prepare for renewables.

Consider, for example, the emerging solar panel industry in Toledo, Ohio (known as the Glass City), about 40 miles south of Detroit. Toledo, along with Elmira, in southwestern New York State, has long been an engineering and production center of blown and pressed glass, glassware, fiberglass, and fiber optics. The metro area still provides a share of the windows and windshields that end up in cars and trucks, but it has lost thousands of jobs to offshoring in auto glass and other glass-related industries. Toledo’s glassmakers began a transition to solar panels, primarily a glass product in the 1980s, when the University of Toledo opened its Wright Center for Photovoltaics Innovation and Commercialization. Its main innovation has been in thin-film solar, which engineers derived from similar technology used to press ultrathin layers of microscopic material into auto glass to minimize shattering or reduce glare. Its biggest success to date, First Solar, went public in 2006, and by 2009 it was the leading American producer of solar panels, with contracts for huge solar farms throughout the United States and Europe. Its advantage lay in a process using cheaper non-silicon-based raw materials and thus an ability to sell at lower cost. Between 2007 and 2010, its production had quadrupled to 1,282 megawatts, or, by one measure, enough to power about 100,000 U.S. homes. By the end of 2010, its costs were 75 cents per watt, down by more than a third of what they had been in 2006 and well on their way to grid parity, or what it costs to buy traditional forms of energy (coal, natural gas, nuclear, and large hydro) from the electric grid.