GEM Energy employees Joe Rybka and Ryan Schmitt install solar panell at the Overland site in Toledo. Credit: Tom Ethington

A joint project in Toledo by the port authority, a community foundation and local industry earmarks profits for community needs.

An innovative solar project in Toledo will do triple duty when it’s completed this spring. It will provide renewable power to a nearby axle factory. It will use otherwise unproductive land. And hundreds of thousands of dollars from the sale of the project’s electricity will benefit nearby low-income communities.

“I look at it all as part of improving the neighborhood … and getting more people involved by providing low-cost clean energy for a local manufacturer,” said local resident Brenda Sawyers. She chairs the Old West End Neighborhood Initiatives, or OWENI, an alliance of community groups that she and her husband Ernest organized in 2012.

Sawyers’ husband started working at Toledo’s Jeep plant in 1984, and the couple lived together nearby until his sudden death last year. “People called us peanut butter and jelly because you never saw one without the other,” she said. “We had such a strong passion for community involvement and getting people to respect and be proud of the neighborhood.”

But the neighborhood went downhill in the years after Chrysler closed its 96-year-old plant in 2006. Employees who once walked to work moved away for other jobs. More renters moved into properties owned by absentee landlords. Various properties became rundown.

“A lot of houses need improvement,” said Keith Burwell, president of the Greater Toledo Community Foundation. “There’s blight in the area.”

The city worked to redevelop the old plant site. The Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority purchased the property in 2010 and arranged for an environmental cleanup. Dana Incorporated opened its new Toledo Driveline Facility on part of the renamed Overland Industrial Park in 2017, and the port authority has brought in a few smaller companies as well.

But the area where the new solar project sits couldn’t be leased to conventional commercial tenants because it’s a floodway. Basically, the area becomes an extension of the Ottawa River during a flood or storm event. At those times Lake Erie backs up into the lower part of the river, Burwell noted.

Together, the Greater Toledo Community Foundation, the port authority and local businesses have found a way to make the land work for a 3-megawatt solar plant.

The foundation leased the project site from the port authority for a nominal amount. Local solar manufacturer First Solar, development firm GEM Energy, and other suppliers agreed to donate or discount modules, equipment and construction services. And Dana entered into a long-term power purchase agreement for the facility’s output for its 300,000-square-foot axle assembly plant.

“Siting of this project, while [it] was challenging to design, was a great use of the property,” said Jason Slattery, director of solar operations at GEM Energy, a turnkey solar development firm within the Toledo-based Rudolph Libbe Group. Among other things, the embedments are deeper. The solar panel modules sit higher off the ground. And all electrical equipment, such as inverters and transformers, will be on elevated platforms.

Construction of the solar array is underway, and the project is visible to thousands of cars passing along Interstate 75 each day.

“There is a sense of pride when you drive along one of the busiest corridors that used to manufacture Jeeps for World War 2 and look over and see this iconic solar array producing clean and cost-effective power,” Slattery said. “It sends a statement that this is here to stay and it makes good business sense.”

The Overland solar site, between Interstate 75 and the Ottawa River. (photo courtesy of GEM Energy/Rudolph Libbe)

Multiple benefits

“Dana is a company that’s very committed to sustainability. So from that standpoint, when the opportunity presented itself, we definitely wanted to take advantage of it,” said company spokesperson Jeff Cole.

The “icing on the cake” is that money spent for the electricity will go back into the community to help local people, Cole added. “This is going to be perfect for them in terms of being able to improve the neighborhood.”

“This will provide anywhere from $300,000 to half a million dollars a year after we get rolling,” Burwell said. “For the next 25 years we’re going to have income that’s coming in from the sun.”

At one point the foundation and others thought about using the array’s electricity for net metering on low-income homes. That would have taken more time and effort to set up, Burwell said. Plus, project planners wanted to make sure benefits would go to residents, versus absentee landlords. The nonprofit set-up allows for more strategic planning and flexibility.

“We’re not just going to give everybody free electricity,” Burwell said. Instead, “we’re actually going to be able to use the electricity [sale’s proceeds] for different things.”

“We’re not defining what the projects are” at this point, he continued. That will be decided by a committee based on the most pressing needs from year to year, with input from people like Sawyers at OWENI and other community groups.

Sawyers agreed that details need to be worked out. But she quickly suggested multiple possibilities.

“We’ve talked about job training. We’ve talked about possible housing beautifications for people, especially the elderly, who can’t afford to make renovations on their homes. We’ve started talking about projects for youth and other items,” Sawyers said.

“We’re starting with OWENI, but we’re not stopping there,” Burwell added. As needs are addressed in the closest neighborhoods, he expects the project’s benefits to expand outward to more areas. “It’s like you throw a rock in a pond and the circles keep going out and out,” he said.

“This would be a legacy for the community,” Sawyers said, in spirit with the goals she and her husband hoped for when they and others first started OWENI. “Even though there is blight, our neighborhood is not in the dumps. There are still a lot of residents who take pride in their neighborhood.”

Correction: GEM Energy is a turnkey solar development firm within the Toledo-based Rudolph Libbe Group. The name of the construction firm was misspelled in a previous version of this article.

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.