What Happened With Solyndra

Wed, 2011-09-21 12:47

I’m sure most of you have heard the news stories about the California-based solar manufacturer Solyndra. I’m sure you’ve heard they received a massive loan from the government and how this was a huge failure by the Obama administration. While we don’t have an opinion of the politics surrounding this issue, we would like to offer some feedback and help cut through to the key energy-related issues with this story. 

Solyndra had a unique technology: their solar tubes were cylindrical and used an expensive copper indium gallium thin film technology instead of the typical silicon wafers most people are used to seeing.

Why it looked good:

-It was easy to install. It essentially snapped together in large modules.

-It was much lighter and reduced the typical weight load on the roof. Because it was cylindrical, it also had very little wind load on the system. It didn’t require ballasting or large anchoring systems.

Why it didn’t work out:

-The technology turned out to be more expensive per watt when compared to other technologies produced in China and elsewhere. The overall cost per watt over the life of the system turned out to be higher.

-The tubes benefitted from being placed on a white roof, which would reflect solar energy back up into the tubes. Being placed on a typical dark or black roof degraded the capability. This would require most buildings to not only pay for the solar system but also pay for a roof replacement/retrofit.

-With silicon prices falling, the Chinese manufacturers have the advantage. Solyndra's module cost was too high. Solyndra used an expensive thin film material called copper indium gallium instead of the cheaper materials used in more traditional silicon wafer applications.

The dollars and cents of all this:

According to this article, the Department of Energy (DOE) planned for 10% of the loans to go bad. If they have already backed 18 companies with $10 billion, including a $535 million dollar loan to Solyndra, that means that Solyndra ate up 5% of their planned failures already. Let’s hope that the rest of the companies pan out successfully so that the importance of Solar energy as a whole isn’t tarnished by this story.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Do you think private companies should be getting these loans from the government, or should that be going through private banks? Leave a comment and let us know.

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