United Solar Ovonic to Expand Michigan Plant

AUBURN HILLS -- United Solar Ovonic is doubling its production capacity to keep up with demand for its lightweight, flexible solar panels.

To ease a six-month backlog on orders, Uni-Solar broke ground Thursday on an $80 million plant that will essentially be a clone of its existing facility in Auburn Hills and within sight of it. The project, aided by state and local tax incentives, will create 200 jobs when finished next May.

The expansion will raise capacity to 50 megawatts, and inventor Stanford Ovshinsky, who founded Uni-Solar parent Energy Conversion Devices in 1960, expects it won't be long before even that's not enough. Capacity refers to the maximum amount of power that could be generated by all the panels produced at the plant.

Uni-Solar's sales have doubled in the past year and quadrupled since 2002. Meanwhile, the cost of oil and other forms of energy have soared, heightening demand for economical, alternative sources.

"In the future, there are going to be thousands of plants needed," Ovshinsky said, "so we can have energy freedom from the geographic locations that are causing us so much trouble now."

Uni-Solar makes thin, rugged solar panels by running huge rolls of stainless steel through a machine the length of a football field that applies nine layers of individual atoms.

The thin-film panels are being installed on buildings around the world, from Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., to the Beijing New Capital Museum. The panels are also being pitched as a fix for the lack of electricity in remote areas, particularly in India and China.

Habitat for Humanity has used the panels to build U.S. homes that produce their own energy.

"This should have been done a long time ago," said U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman during a factory tour Thursday. "This has the potential to have a major impact on energy availability throughout the world." Uni-Solar's growth is critical to Energy Conversion Devices' plan to reach "sustained profitability" within a year.

ECD, with former General Motors Corp. chairman Robert C. Stempel as its chief executive, has become well known for its innovations, but has often struggled to make money.