Power Panel Brings Solar Manufacturing to Detroit

Solar panel manufacturing in Detroit? I didn’t know it either until I received an e-mail from Adam Stratton, Power Panel‘s vice president of business development. An affable Canadian, he invited me out to the company’s manufacturing facility on the far western edge of the city, in a corner of Detroit I had yet to visit.

I toured the operation inside a sprawling warehouse shared with JSP Automotive, and walked around with Stratton as he explained how the profitable company’s solar panels are made from recyclable materials for residential and commercial applications. (Defense, food processing, and pharmaceuticals are big markets for Power Panel, Stratton says.)

What makes Power Panel’s products different than the competitors, he says, is that they’re capable of generating solar photovoltaic and solar thermal energy in the same pane, unlike typical solar panels. That means the panels are capable of simultaneously generating electricity and supplying a building with hot water. “On buildings, there’s a limited amount of space for solar panels, usually on the roof,” Stratton says. “We want to maximize the amount of space, and maximize our footprint. Nobody else has a system like this.”

Because Power Panel provides an integrated system, Stratton says, it’s cheaper than providing the photovoltaic and thermal panels separately. Another benefit: Power Panel’s products are made with recyclable high-volume plastics. “At the end of the life of this product, you can throw it in a shredder and upcycle or downcycle it into another panel or a car part,” he says.

And that’s not the only place where Power Panel and the auto industry overlap.

The startup’s CEO, Garth Schultz, spent decades in the auto industry, where he was exposed to the possibilities of renewable materials. A friend approached him with an idea for a concentrated solar venture, but the technology wasn’t quite mature, Schultz says. So he set about proving the concept and then determining what the market needed. In 2007, he formally launched Power Panel with the help of private investors, using many of the same supply chains he knew from working in the auto industry.

“Small-volume automotive suppliers work perfectly in the renewable space,” Schultz says. “I just picked up and used them here.”

From 2007 to 2011, Power Panel was located at NextEnergy’s incubator, near the Wayne State University campus. In 2011, Schultz says, the company used tax incentives from the state and city to refurbish the 22,000 square-foot facility it now calls home.

Power Panel also has operations in Europe, Africa, and Canada. Japan, South Korea, and North Africa are among the company’s top markets internationally, while in the states, the biggest markets are California, Hawaii, and the Eastern seaboard. Stratton says the U.S. market for solar energy products remains sluggish, and at least a decade behind Europe’s. There hasn’t been much political will to invest in solar lately, though he hopes that changes soon.

“We need to focus on what was originally promised—to develop the industry using financial and industrial models that already exist,” Stratton adds. “There is enough of a skilled workforce to diversify and expand into solar. But we’re turning a profit, and things have gotten better both at the state and federal level in the past six months.”

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