It’s official: Thin-film PV firm OptiSolar to shut down operations, lay off majority of workers

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Tom Cheyney
Tom Cheyney
Tom Cheyney, former senior editor of PV-Tech and Photovoltaics International, is now chief curator of SolarCurator.com and director of Impress Labs’ solar practice.

When I openly wondered about the fate of OptiSolar, post-First Solar pipeline sale, in my most recent blog, little did I know that within 24 hours of posting those words that the company's fate would be announced. The Sacramento Business Journal, in a story published earlier today, reports that the amorphous-silicon thin-film PV module company has had to shut down operations and lay off most of its employees.
 
The decision was made because OptiSolar "could not obtain funding to keep the operation going," according to company spokesman Alan Bernheimer. Losing their jobs will be 58 workers at the McClellan Park facility in Sacramento and 142 workers at the company's Hayward HQ/panel plant, with a small "transition team" remaining at both locales. The company had laid off some 300 employees in January, because of the cash crunch.
 
I reached a blue Bernheimer via email, and he confirmed the report (and his own role as part of the transition team). "While we continue to seek a buyer for our technology and manufacturing business," he wrote me, "we are encouraged by the fact that OptiSolar’s vision of large-scale PV solar will become a reality in the hands of First Solar, which has the resources needed in today's dysfunctional economy."
 
I asked him whether the status of the U.S. Department of Energy loan that OptiSolar applied for had any bearing on the decision to ramp down operations. His reply suggests a classic case of too little, too late.
 
"The DOE loan guarantee application went in last month," he related, "but the review process takes many months, and we don’t expect a determination until toward year-end. Nevertheless, that could make the manufacturing business more attractive to a buyer. Even so, it will require additional investment."

It was only a few months ago that OptiSolar was touted as a darling of the new green-power economy, with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger using the new Sacramento factory as the backdrop for a November announcement of a major renewable energy initiative in California. The company received favorable coverage in major media outlets like Fortune magazine and CBS-TV's "60 Minutes."

Then the walls fell in, the house of cards started collapsing, and within months OptiSolar has been brought low. Once First Solar bought its most valuable assets--its hundreds of megawatts of utility-scale PV deals in the pipeline and the development team that went with them--there was evidently not enough left to keep the company alive.

A sad tale indeed, but likely not the last one we'll see in the PV sector during these recessionary times. If I were a betting man, I'd wager that OptiSolar will not be the last upstart thin-film solar manufacturer to burn through its cash before it can start to ship in volume for a decent revenue stream, fail to find more backing, and be forced to pull the plug.

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