By The Business Journal of Milwaukee

Reiterating messages he sent in his national address last night, President Barack Obama told a crowd in Manitowoc Wednesday that the country needs to back innovation and clean energy in order to get the national economy moving again.

Obama gave his speech at Orion Energy Systems Inc., a Manitowoc-based provider of energy efficient lighting and energy management systems, before the press and about 200 of the firm's employees.

The President later visited Skana Aluminum Co., a Manitowoc supplier of aluminum coil, blanks and extrusion plugs, and Tower Tech Systems Inc., a growing Manitowoc manufacturer of towers for wind energy turbines that has added several hundred workers in recent years. Obama recognized Skana for taking over part of a shuttered Mirro plant and creating jobs.

At Orion, Obama said the company and its chief executive Neal Verfuerth represent just the type of innovation that needs to receive the nation's support.

"We need to get behind clean energy companies like Orion," Obama said. "We need to get behind innovation."

Orion continues to grow. Company officials on Tuesday reported that operating income is rising, and its order backlog has risen to $8.6 million from $5.1 million a year ago. Obama said Orion expects its employment to grow from about 250 now to 300 by the end of the year.

Mark Meade, Orion's director of business development, said at the event that he likes Obama's idea of investing in companies like Orion, which assists companies in their energy-efficiency projects. Existing government programs that give tax credits and other incentives to businesses to improve energy efficiency has generated more business for Orion, he said. He said the company is considering adding more employees in sales and project management.

"Our energy efficiency technology has a 1- to 2-year payback without any subsidy at all," Meade said. "However, the investment in those renewable energy technologies helps get those projects off the ground."

Manitowoc Mayor Justin Nickels spoke about the unemployment problems that occurred after city lost cookware manufacturer Mirro in 2003. Unemployment in the city hit 14 percent after the company left, Nickels said, but is now down to 8 percent because of new jobs created by companies such as Orion and Skana Aluminum that moved into Mirro's former buildings. Of the nine sites Mirro left vacant in the city, he said, only one has not been redeveloped.

Obama drew a parallel between Manitowoc's economic recovery and his plan to give more government support for research and growth in clean energy companies nationwide. Other countries such as China already are investing in energy technologies such as solar power, he said.

"This is not something I'm making up just to fill in time in a speech," Obama said. "China is making these investments."

During his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, Obama laid out a three-pronged approach to improve the economy. Obama said he would push for programs to invest in biomedical, information technology and clean energy companies to encourage development of new products. He set a goal to have 80 percent of the nation's electricity come from clean energy sources, such as wind, solar and nuclear power, by 2035.

Obama pledged to propose new programs aimed at improving education and college graduation rates.

Echoing a speech he made in Milwaukee in September, Obama said he would focus on improving U.S. infrastructure, including bridges, highways, high-speed rail and high-speed Internet connections.

"We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world," Obama said. "We have to make America the best place in the world to do business."

Copyright 2011 American City Business Journals

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