A New $900 Million Investment Catapults Michigan Into Solar Industry Spotlight

A New 900 Million Investment Catapults Michigan Into Solar Industry Spotlight

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If you heard the sound of shade being thrown around earlier this week, that was probably the sound of shade being thrown by the state of Michigan. The state’s solar industry has been somewhat middling until now, but a new $900 million investment from the global-facing materials firm Corning has just shaken things up. Michigan beat out other states in the Midwest and Northeast to win the new project, and state officials were happy to credit their talent pool with tipping the balance.

Corning Gives The MI Solar Industry A Giant Leg Up

The talent pool angle is an interesting one but let’s get to that solar industry shakeup first. It is difficult to overstate the impact of the $900 million Corning investment on Michigan’s solar profile, because it really is huge.

The Solar Energy Industries Association puts the total solar investment in Michigan so far at a fairly respectable $1.7 billion. Against that backdrop, a new infusion of $900 million represents a lightening step way past the $2 billion milestone.

SEIA also calculates that the state’s solar industry currently hosts 4,073 jobs. State officials anticipate that the Corning investment will add another 1,100 jobs to the pile in one fell swoop.

The Michigan Economic Development Corporation organized the incentive package to attract Corning, including a $68 million Critical Industries performance-based grant among other benefits.

MEDC also emphasized that financial incentives were not the only attraction giving it the edge over the competition.

“Corning chose Michigan for the project over competing sites in the Midwest and Northeast because of its talent pool and commitment to onshore critical clean energy supply chains,” MEDC explained.

MEDC also brought up the talent angle in the same announcement, when it noted that Lucid Motors is setting up an R&D hub in Michigan with plans for establishing an initial team of 200 engineers.

“The company chose Michigan for the project over competing sites in Ohio and Texas because of the attractiveness of the state’s workforce and the number of suppliers in the region,” MEDC explained.

Don’t break out the pom-poms just yet, as MEDC advises that the state legislature still has to put its John Hancock on the incentive package. However, the deal appears to be all but done, according to MEDC.

New York Firm Grows The Solar Industry In Michigan

Since Corning is headquartered in New York, it’s fair to ask why it chose Michigan for its new solar industry investment. The company has not updated its press release archive as of this writing. MEDC also played it close to the vest, stating only that “Corning Incorporated, a global leader in materials science, plans to construct a new facility in Richland Township where it will manufacture solar components.”

CleanTechnica reached out for some details about what solar components the new factory will produce. We’ll provide an update when the information is available. Meanwhile, MEDC notes that the new facility is not Corning’s first foray into the Michigan solar industry. The company also co-owns the leading Michigan polysilicon firm Hemlock Semiconductor, with the Japanese chemical firm Shin-Etsu Handotai as the other co-owner. As described by MEDC, the plan is for the new facility to form a ready-made solar industry hub with Hemlock.

MEDC does not mention the name of the new subsidiary in its announcement, but CleanTechnica received an email describing it as Solar Technology LLC. The non-profit news organization Bridge Michigan has some further details.

Corning subsidiary Solar Technology LLC — a company formed in 2023 and registered in Michigan in January — plans to build the 1-million-square-foot assembly plant next to Hemlock Semiconductor,” Bridge Michigan reported earlier this week.

Along with the impact on the in-state solar industry profile, the new facility is expected to put Michigan on the global map, too. Bridge Michigan cites Josh Hundt, MEDC chief projects officer, who told attendees at a media briefing that products from the new facility “will be shipped to global locations with an expectation that this will continue to become a more domestic manufacturing base, both for Corning and the industry.”

Michigan’s solar industry plot also thickened back in 2022, Bridge Michigan notes, when Hemlock embarked on a $375 million expansion aimed at increasing its production capacity to accommodate growth in the solar industry.

Of Course, Perovskites

Of course, no news about the solar industry would be complete without a mention of perovskite, an emerging material that promises to shepherd a new generation of low cost, high performance solar cells into the global solar industry.

Michigan has emerged as one of the hotspots for perovskite solar cell research, through the Michigan Engineering branch of the University of Michigan.

“An insight into preventing perovskite semiconductors from degrading quickly, discovered at the University of Michigan, could help enable solar cells estimated to be two to four times cheaper than today’s thin-film solar panels,” reported Michigan Engineering News in January.

We bring this up because there is a connection between Corning and perovskite solar cell technology. Back in 2020, the New York firm Energy Materials Corporation inked a joint development agreement with Corning, aimed at “bringing low-cost, high-performance perovskite solar photovoltaic panels and products to the energy industry.”

“At EMC, our focus is purebred perovskite solar,” EMC explains. “With its outsized advantages in simplified manufacturing, exceptional high efficiency solar energy conversion, and proven durability, our product plan consists of single junction (one solar cell layer), bifacial and tandem junction (two solar cell layers) perovskite solar modules.”

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About That Talent Pool…

The connections between Michigan, Corning, and perovskite solar cells notwithstanding, plans for Michigan’s home grown solar industry to lead the way into a perovskite future have not yet materialized in print. We’re just guessing at this point.

We might know more when we get some additional details about that new $900 million solar facility. In the meantime, let’s finally get around to that talent pool angle.

MEDC did not say which states were competing for Corning’s new solar industry investment, but it did name-check Ohio and Texas in relation to Lucid’s new engineering hub. Those two states happen to be front and center in the reproductive rights chaos following the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade protections. We’re used to seeing them in the context of abortion restrictions. However, it’s unusual to see the two name-checked together for losing out on a new clean tech investment.

As relates to the talent pool, the elimination of federal protections has fostered a new state-to-state legal patchwork. That has raised concerns that the most abortion-restricting states will face new obstacles against educating, attracting, and recruiting STEM professionals.

That’s not particularly a problem for Michigan, which registers around the middle in a state ranking of abortion protections and restrictions. In contrast, Ohio hits the “Restrictive” mark and Texas nails down “Most Restrictive” status.

Concerns over college graduates and STEM professionals leaving their home states are nothing new, and so far the evidence of a brain drain from more restrictive states is anecdotal. For that matter, the Texas solar industry is still booming.

However, some data is beginning to emerge about a brain drain in the Texas ob-gyn field and other health care professions. That raises the stakes. If medical professionals are pulling out of abortion-restricting states, then health care for every pregnancy-capable person is impacted, not just those seeking an abortion. That could have a ripple effect on STEM employment across the board.

Ohio and Texas caught our attention in the MEDC announcement because this is the first time we noticed such a call-out in the context of losing the competition for clean tech investment dollars. If you’ve noticed anything along those lines, drop us a note in the comment thread.

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Image (screenshot): The Michigan solar industry is growing, with the addition of a new $900 million investment from Corning to form a solar manufacturing hub with the Hemlock Semiconductor polysilicon factory (courtesy of Hemlock Semiconductor).

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