Why learning the lessons of Solyndra matters

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on reddit
Share on email
Learning the lessons from the Solyndra saga will help win public support in the political battles that lie ahead.

The timing could hardly have been less fortunate. A US government report this week on the collapse of thin-film firm Solyndra dropped on the same day President Obama stood before a Las Vegas audience to announce some US$1 billion of federal government support for clean energy initiatives, among which solar was a big beneficiary.

Bearing in mind that the demise of Solyndra ended up costing the US taxpayer in excess of US$500 million, the irony will have been lost on few.

The Solyndra report, a four-year piece of investigative work by the Department of Energy’s Inspector General, makes for an eye-opening read, pointing the finger at both apparently deceitful Solyndra employees and unvigilant department officials and consultants, who missed numerous chances of preventing a US$535 million write-off of public money.

Without naming names, it details the lengths to which Solyndra executives apparently went to convince officials that its product – an expensive variant on the CIGS thin-film theme – was worth backing.

Central to the story Solyndra spun was the claim that the ease of installing its modules and the cost savings that attribute offered in balance of systems (BoS) terms justified the above-market prices it expected to charge for its product.

The report reveals how Solyndra peddled this point right up until the closure of the DOE loan the company was seeking to fund its new California fab, even though it appears clear now it was basing its claims on knowingly false information. It cites one email sent by a Solyndra employee to the department shortly before the loan closed in August 2008, claiming BoS cost savings from its modules of “about US$1/Watt”, a figure the report said was later shown to be double what Solyndra was working off internally.

And the DOE itself comes in for strong criticism in the report. Although the department engaged in a due diligence process, the investigation revealed that that process missed opportunities to critically analyse and act on information supplied by Solyndra.

In one instance detailed in the report, a consultant hired by the department received an amended sales contract from Solyndra that if properly scrutinised should have set off the alarm bells. The amendment essentially voided the obligation of the customer in question to purchase future Solyndra products, and had been requested by the customer because the contract was already being incorrectly followed. But the report said there was no evidence the consultant had alerted the department to what it said was a “strong indicator” that market acceptance of Solyndra’s product was not as robust as it claimed.

So what?

The reaction by many to all of this may well be “so what?” The truth was apparently twisted, mistakes were made, what now seems like the inevitable happened and lot of public money was lost that cannot now be reclaimed. Solyndra is long gone and the world has moved on.

Those are all valid points. But there is a good reason why this report still has a strong relevance today.

Next year the US will go to the polls to elect a new president. As we saw in the last US presidential election, energy is a political hot potato during election campaigns and it is almost inevitable that the Solyndra wagon will be wheeled out again, as it was in the last election, by (probably Republicans) candidates looking to argue that public funding of clean technologies is a bad bet.

Related to this is the question of whether Congress will pass an extension to the investment tax credit (ITC), which is otherwise due for a sharp cut at the end of next year. As the example par excellence of how the public funding of clean technologies can go horribly wrong, expect the Solyndra tale to be similarly retold by those wishing to see the ITC go.

All in all, the next 18 months will be crucial in shaping the future landscape of federal support for renewable energy in the US. In many ways the details contained in this week’s report will not help the cause, providing those opposed to public funding of clean energy with fresh ammunition.

Equally, though, with the full story of the Solyndra shambles out in the open, there is now an opportunity for solar’s advocates and its supporters in government to draw a line, admit where mistakes were made and make sure they don’t happen again.

Another experience akin to the Solyndra affair could put a permanent dent in the public’s willingness to give solar and other clean energy technologies the benefit of the doubt as a beneficiary of taxpayers’ money at a time when that goodwill will help be crucial in helping win the battles ahead. Showing that the lessons of Solyndra have been learned will go a long way in garnering that support.

28 July 2021
LONGi has launched its Hi-MO N module, the company's first bifacial module with N-type TOPCon cells, designed to deliver ultra- high value and lower LCOE to utility-scale PV power plants. This PV TechTalk Product Series webinar will provide an overview of the module’s technology and how the introduction of n-type technologies will provide efficiency and performance gains for solar project developers.
19 August 2021
The utility-scale PV market is poised for exponential growth and yet the industry still has many fundamental opportunities to improve on standards and best practice. Tracker shade loss has been one of those topics that deserve more attention, but has been typically handled by derate factors rather than trying to accurately forecast the loss over the life of the system. Join Nextracker’s subject matter experts, Aron Dobos and Neelesh Umachandran, and Rounak Kharait, director of solar energy assessments at DNV, for a webinar about why shade modeling matters and recommendations on what the solar industry should do about it.
25 August 2021
Energy Next is a new industry exhibition focusing on the latest renewable energy and energy efficiency technology, which will be held for the first time in 2021 in Sydney, Australia alongside the Clean Energy Council’s Australian Clean Energy Summit, the peak gathering of leaders driving Australia's energy transformation. Organised by the same people behind Australia’s largest clean energy event, All-Energy Australia, Energy Next will give visitors two days of access to key suppliers in the industry, free-to-attend professional development and industry workshops, and networking opportunities to better understand clean energy issues and solutions and learn about the latest developments in this transformational, dynamic sector.
25 August 2021
The Intersolar Summit Brasil Nordeste takes place in Fortaleza, Brazil. It addresses leading local and international experts on solar power and renewable energy in the region. The Summit’s mission is to provide in-depth education, enable high-quality networking opportunities, expand the use of PV technologies at regional and national level and strengthen the local PV industry. The Intersolar Summit Brasil Nordeste is organized by Intersolar South America - Latin America’s largest exhibition and conference for the solar industry: Solar Promotion International GmbH, Pforzheim, Freiburg Management and Marketing International GmbH (FMMI) and Aranda Eventos & Congressos Ltda, São Paulo as co-organizer.
25 August 2021
Join us to hear directly from the CTOs and heads-of-research from the top-20 cell/wafer producers to the PV industry today. The event will focus on predicting the key metrics underpinning the next big shift to n-type with answers to the key questions: When will the transition to n-type happen? Which companies will be first to 10 GW capacity and production? Who will be the key equipment suppliers for the new production lines? Which n-type process flow/architecture will emerge as the front-runner? What will polysilicon purity and wafer thickness levels look like for optimized n-type manufacturing? What will the upstream poly/wafer supply-chain look like in 5 years from now?
26 August 2021
In this webinar, JA Solar will present its product portfolio based on the latest technologies to improve your PV projects, ensuring maximum reliability and performance. During the webinar we will receive insight from JA Solar about its solar technology roadmap and how the manufacturer is providing customers with innovative solutions to suit their needs, while we will also analyse how to determine the best product solution for each solar project.

Read Next

July 28, 2021
Two US Senators have introduced a bipartisan energy tax proposal to encourage innovation in the clean energy sector and rapidly scale up new technologies.
July 28, 2021
Chinese inverter manufacturer Sungrow has opened another research and development (R&D) centre in Nanjing, China that will focus on smart technologies, big data and software integration
July 27, 2021
Greek industrial group Mytilineos recorded a net profit of €77 million (US$91 million) in H1 2021, however the firm’s renewables division witnessed a drop in revenue year-on-year.
July 27, 2021
Canadian Solar has closed a BRL500 million (US$100 million) financing facility to develop a Brazilian solar portfolio claimed to be the country’s largest, while also giving it the option to hold built solar assets for longer.
July 27, 2021
Community Choice Aggregators (CCA) Central Coast Community Energy (CCCE) and Silicon Valley Clean Energy (SVCE) have signed contracts for 778MW of renewable energy generation and 118.75MW of energy storage in California.
July 27, 2021
More than 140 business leaders have urged the US Congress to pass President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, telling lawmakers that the bill is “desperately needed” to renew the nation’s infrastructure

Subscribe to Newsletter

Upcoming Events

Upcoming Webinars
August 19, 2021
At 9am (PT) | 6pm (CEST)
Solar Media Events
August 25, 2021
Solar Media Events
October 6, 2021