By Brian Clark
Way back when — sometime around the Cambrian and Orodovician periods — large amounts of low-iron, pure quartz sandstone were deposited in the shallow ocean covering what is now Wisconsin.
This was roughly between 470 and 500 million years ago, in what UW-Madison emeritus geology professor Bob Dott calls “those dim, long-gone days when Wisconsin was located near the equator.” *
Fast-forward to the present: The housing and commercial construction markets have imploded and the need for windows has shattered. But alternative energy is big, with government policies backing wind and solar energy efforts.
Which makes Wisconsin’s abundant low-iron sand deposits — which produce glass that lets in more light — attractive to companies like Cardinal Glass Industries.
So the firm is shifting gears from producing residential and commercial windows to making glass for solar panels.
“All the large window manufacturers are down at least 25 to 50 percent,” said Kelly Busch, a vice president with Cardinal.
So his Minnesota-based company is now ramping up the solar side of the business, with the first solar cover plate glass — using Wisconsin’s low-iron sand — produced in April.
And in September, Gov. Jim Doyle helped open the company’s new 180,000-square-foot Cardinal facility in Mazomanie, where the back plates for solar collectors are being made.
“Cardinal Solar Technologies is not only creating highly skilled ‘green’ jobs, it is also contributing significantly to America’s energy independence,” Doyle said at the gathering.
At the same time, the governor announced a $500,000 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act loan to Cardinal to upgrade production capacity at its Portage plant, where the low-iron sand is mined. The firm also has facilities in Tomah, Avery, Menomonie and Spring Green, where its solar coatings and R&D headquarters are located.
“As the residential and commercial side has dropped off, that’s freed up a lot of capacity in our manufacturing operations to supplement that loss with this additional solar business,” Busch said.
During the downturn, he said Cardinal has not had to close any plants.
“We’ve been able to maintain our manufacturing infrastructure, while others have had to put operations on hold or even shut them down entirely,” he said. “As the solar market has grown, that’s allowed us to fulfill our capacity.”
Because Wisconsin’s low-iron sand is close to Cardinal’s factories, he said the company is able to keep its transportation costs down.
“We don’t have to bring it in as far,” he said.
Other deposits of sand around the country are not as low in iron, though that metal can be removed through magnetic and other processes, he said.
Busch said he is confident that solar energy will be a growing part of the country’s power grid in the future.
“I think it has caught on,” he said. “There are a lot of start-up companies out there and technology has improved a lot in the past few years because of R&D money.”
However, he said the economic crisis has taken its toll on many nascent firms, which are suffering from lack of venture capital funding.
Busch said firms are making solar panels for both home energy use and for power generation on a massive scale both in the United States and China.
“I think it’s coming on line, though the lack of investment money has slowed things down,” he said.
“That’s where government stimulus money would be nice to not only help solar manufacturers, but also establish some of those solar fields as well.”
Busch said he believes Cardinal has a great opportunity to develop the solar glass industry in Wisconsin.
“We’ve got the sand, we’ve got the float glass, we’ve got the best coating technology in the world and the major manufacturing components for the cell itself, which could really put Wisconsin on the map going forward here,” he said.
“With the research facilities at the university in Madison, that really helps, too. And we also got a lot of help from the Department of Commerce and others were great in making this work and bringing jobs to the state.
“I’ve lived around the country and this has been the best group to work with,” he concluded.
*(You can read all about it in the Mountain Press tome “Roadside Geology of Wisconsin,” penned by Dott and UW-Extension Geologist John Attig.)