A solar energy CEO discusses the pending bankruptcy of Solyndra, which had raised more than $1.5 billion from private investors and the U.S. government.
The epitaph for Solyndra is significant because of what was not a factor in their demise. It was certainly not for a lack of trying. But more importantly, it was not because of Chinese competition or a lack of U.S. government support.
Chinese solar panels are 10-20% less expensive than U.S.-made panels; but by some estimates, Solyndra’s panels were 100% more. It’s a mistake to blame Solyndra’s problems on our lack of manufacturing commitment or relatively higher labor costs compared to China. Solar panels are commodities being sold on the worldwide market on a $/watt basis — much as aluminum is sold on a $/kg basis. It is crystal clear that cheap and easy to install solar panels are exactly what the U.S. needs to reduce our energy costs and create installation jobs.
For five years or more, the U.S. government was providing support for solar manufacturing in the U.S. The DOE Loan Guarantee program provided critical funding for Solyndra’s manufacturing growth, supported by over $1b in private capital. Unfortunately, both these private investors and the DOE made a couple of bets on Solyndra that didn’t pan out.
The first bad bet was that refined silicon, the feedstock for the solar panel industry, would stay expensive. Solyndra invented a solar panel that didn’t use expensive silicon. Unfortunately for Solyndra, and fortunately for all the silicon solar panel manufacturers and customers, silicon has gotten very cheap over the past few years. So the problem that Solyndra solved — expensive silicon — disappeared.
The second bad bet was that Solyndra’s flat roof installation technology would make up for their relatively expensive panels. Solyndra did indeed see big savings on flat roof installations, but the rest of the industry did not stand still. Other commercial flat roof products are on the market (full disclosure, Westinghouse Solar has an inexpensive and easy to install flat roof solar panel product) with similar benefits at much lower costs to Solyndra.
Management and investors finally pulled the plug when two things became brutally apparent. First, that silicon wasn’t going to get expensive again. And second, Solyndra’s installation advantage couldn’t overcome similar products that were on the market at much lower prices.
It was a great attempt at solving a big problem: Reducing solar installation costs. I hope the U.S. Government is made whole on their DOE loan guarantee (which, notably was initiated during the Bush administration). I hope we don’t bash overseas manufacturers for making commodity solar panels cheaper than we can in the U.S.; after all, we all want inexpensive solar panels. And I hope that Solyndra technology and employees continue to thrive in the emerging clean technology industry which they helped to pioneer.
Barry Cinnamon is CEO of Westinghouse Solar (WEST), a maker of solar power systems.