An idled Ford assembly plant near Detroit could become home to the first factory in the United States using Oerlikon Solar's thin-film equipment.

The Swiss company is set to provide a 90-megawatt line to Clairvoyant Energy, which plans to set up the factory in the closed Ford plant in Wixom, said Chris O'Brien, head of North American market development for Oerlikon Solar, on Thursday.

"There has been a strong interest from existing and new customers about the U.S. market that is driven by a sharp increase in demand by the utility and commercial sectors," O'Brien said.

The U.S. market added 340 megawatts of solar energy generation capacity in 2008, and Oerlikon expects it to grow to 2.7 gigawatts by 2012, he added.

Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Clairvoyant is teaming up with battery maker Xtreme Power in Kyle, Texas to build factories on the sprawling site. Both companies plan to spend $725 million to buy the 320 acres from Ford and renovate it. Clairvoyant would pony up $250 million while Xtreme contribute the $475 million.

Ford operated the Wixom plant for 52 years, during which 6.6 million vehicles such as the Thunderbird and Lincoln Continental rolled out of the assembly lines. Ford closed it in 2007 as part of its restructuring effort.

Clairvoyant and Xtreme plan to occupy about half of the 4.7 million square feet of the building space, and lease the remainder to other greentech companies. Clairvoyant has been a solar power developer, and one of its better known projects involved building a 10-megawatt project on top of a General Motors plant in Spain. 

The two manufacturers are getting hefty support from Michigan state lawmakers, who have passed a $100 million tax credit for battery production, and are planning to approve $25 million for solar energy equipment manufacturing.

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Ford Chairman Bill Ford, along with executives from Clairvoyant, Xtreme Power and Oerlikon Solar held a press event at the Wixom plant Thursday to discuss the redevelopment plan.

Michigan, which has the highest unemployment rate in the country, has been aggressive in wooing greentech manufacturers to set up shop there.

In April this year, the state agreed to provide $100 million in tax credits to A123 Systems, a Watertown, Mass.-based lithium-ion battery maker to build factories. A123 subsequently won a $249.1 million federal grant to help fund its construction plans in Michigan (see Feds Give $2.4B to 48 Auto Battery and Electric Drive projects).

Clairvoyant and Xtreme Power also plan to seek federal financial aid. The companies intend to apply for federal loan guarantees to help set up their manufacturing facilities. Obtaining financial support from the government would be crucial for the two companies to go forward with their site purchase plan.

Clairvoyant hopes to line up the necessary funds in 2010 and install the Oerlikon equipment in 2011, O'Brien said. Solar panel production could then begin in 2011 as well, he added.

O'Brien declined to disclose the cost of buying and installing the first, 90-megawatt line, which will feature the company's micromorph technology. There is enough space to accommodate four production lines, O'Brien said.

Oerlikon's equipment produces solar panels that rely on amorphous silicon as the key ingredient for converting sunlight into electricity. The micromorph technology involves adding another layer of microcrystalline to help boost energy production.

Most of Oerlikon's customers are in Europe and Asia.

Oerlikon's chief competitor, Applied Materials in Santa Clara, Calif., doesn't have a customer producing amorphous silicon thin films in the United States at the moment. Applie's customers also are in Europe and Asia.

Image of an Oerlikon production facility via the company.