SolRWind set to build hybrid solar energy, wind farm

As she trudges over the half-frozen cornfield in rural Clinton County, Amy Maresca leads a class of college students on a search for signs of animal life.

Amid the mud and remaining snow banks, the group finds evidence of small wild animals through spotty tracks and droppings. The students also are left to use their imaginations to envision not only what lurks in the field but what the area will look like once SolRWind builds a hybrid solar energy and wind farm on a five-acre tract of the 200-acre farm.

“We don’t want to interrupt any patterns of creatures,” Maresca tells the environmental science class as they stop to inspect and photograph their findings.

Maresca, the chief executive officer of the new alternative energy company, is literally walking the students from Clinton’s Ashford University through an exercise that mirrors what the company must do as part of its environmental impact assessment.

With plans for installing groups of wind turbines at three high-points on the acreage as well as solar equipment, the project is just one component of the start-up company. In fact, SolRWind was founded in 2008, as a research and development company by James Law, the company’s president.

“James has a lot of fantastic ideas and quite a few we have patents on,” Maresca said, adding that he pulled together their small team of five. Law recruited Maresca, a quality engineer who lost her previous job due to a plant closing, to run the business side of the company.

SolRWind is in the process of designing its own unique solar panel, which it plans to mass produce and sell to the industry beginning next year. It already is a distributor of other companies’ wind energy and solar power products to the residential and commercial markets. On the energy generation side of the equation, the Goose Lake farm — known as Judy’s Dream Project — is one of three generation sites it is pursing. It is working on a wind farm in Jackson County, Iowa, and a solar garden in Carroll County, Ill.

“There is not a lot of solar in this region,” Law said. “We’re looking at Goose Lake being a hybrid of wind and solar.” He said the group got interested in the generation side when the owner of the land approached them about a wind farm.

But SolRWind envisions the manufacture of solar panels to evolve into the largest part of its business. While they are working with a Chinese manufacturer to assemble one component of the solar panel, Law said “We want to produce the jobs here.”

“In the next year, we should be able to employ about 100 people with solar manufacturing and with the other divisions we’re developing,” Maresca said. The company is exploring a few locations to site the manufacturing plant including Clinton and Carroll and Whiteside counties in Illinois.

While wind energy is becoming part of the manufacturing fabric of the Midwest, solar power is just emerging, said Scott Russell, the company’s vice chairman. “It’s like owning a television company and it’s 1947. It’s going to explode.”

But SolRWind has found itself having to educate potential customers, government representatives, bankers and others about the emerging industry and its products, said Elizabeth Lind, the vice president of marketing. She and Maresca are in charge of sales.

“We’re starting to see the sales domino,” Lind said, adding they have encountered challenges in convincing Midwesterners that alternative energy is here to stay. “You’ve got to prove it to them; they don’t like change.”

As Maresca points out “alternative energy is not going to go backwards.”

Much like its Quad-City development neighbors, Clinton County has high hopes for the alternative energy industry. “We’ve had a lot of people tire-kicking Clinton right now,” said Steve Ames, the president and CEO of Clinton Regional Development Corp.

He said the Clinton community has a lot of synergies in place that could attract other renewable energy players, pointing to the existing Clinton County BioEnergy. “Plus we’re located right smack dab in the middle of the agricultural belt.”

The Quad-Cities Chamber of Commerce has identified wind energy as one of its target areas.

Clinton community leaders broke ground last summer on the Lincolnway Railport, which will provide mainline access to the union Pacific Railroad line from an industrial park that could span 1,000 acres or more in Clinton County. The $30 million investment could be ready for a tenant later this year.

“Our mission is to grow manufacturing,” Ames said, adding that if SolRWind’s “manufacturing component takes off, we’d have an interest in creating those jobs here.”

While the company hopes to have its manufacturing up and running next year, Law said it could take three to five years to get the business truly established. The small staff soon will be moving out of their individual home offices into an office near downtown Clinton.

According to Maresca, entering the power generation business is less about creating revenue for SolRWind, although it will sell the power to the nation’s electric grid. “It’s more of an environmental push. We believe with alternative energies that wind and solar are the right way to go.”

The SolRWind team also sees the students at Ashford University as part of their future, which is why Law and Maresca have been volunteering to speak each week to Dr. John Zimmerman’s environmental studies class.

“We’ve been learning the lengthy process they go through for the whole environmental impact process,” said Jennifer Hopkins, an environmental studies junior, while out at the future site of the solar and wind farm. “It would be cool to come back later in the spring and check out the plants.”

Zimmerman welcomed the opportunity to have Law and Maresca give his two dozen juniors and seniors a close-up look at their company. “It’s much better to get the students hands-on experience than teaching them just from a textbook,” he said.

But SolRWind also learns from the students, whose questions prepare them for those they could face from county boards, city councils and others, Maresca said. “It’s interesting to see what they bring up as issues.”

Jennifer DeWitt,