Clean Energy and Dirty Laundry

Clean Energy and Dirty Laundry

An installation of Abound Solar's cadmium-telluride solar panels (via Abound Solar)

After solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra went bankrupt in 2011, critics were quick to point out the company’s fat government loan guarantee and question its political connections to the Obama administration. But just because a solar company, with a federal loan, makes cutbacks, does that mean the business is inept or corrupt?

My March 23, 2012 column for the Northern Colorado Business Report examines the recent case of Abound Solar, based in Loveland, which laid off hundreds of workers earlier this year in order to retool its production line. Also a recipient of a federal loan guarantee, Abound has faced allegations that it’s no different than Solyndra. I reported on how Abound’s setbacks may just be part of the shakeout in the emerging renewable technology industry, which still deserves some assistance to gain footing.

An excerpt from the column:

The company’s assertions that it needs to focus on developing new panels with higher efficiency certainly ring true. Industry observers project that technological advances may eventually enable cadmium-telluride panels to achieve between 16 and 20 percent efficiency (a measure of the energy that a solar panel converts into electricity). Arizona-based FirstSolar, the world’s second-largest photovoltaic manufacturer tested a cadmium-telluride module last summer that peaked at over 17 percent efficiency, though it averaged 11.7 percent over time. Abound officials have said their new “AB2” 85-watt module runs at 12.5 percent efficiency, a result verified at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden.

“Current market conditions are challenging for all U.S. solar manufacturers, but the long-term winners will be manufacturers of the lowest cost per watt, most reliable systems,” Abound CEO Craig Witsoe said in a press release.

Low costs are indeed helping to sort winners and losers in the solar manufacturing field.

With massive investment and subsidies for clean-energy technology in China, the prices of solar photovoltaic panels have dropped steeply in recent years. The market has tilted so sharply toward cheap Chinese solar modules that seven solar companies with U.S. offices filed a complaint last year with the Department of Commerce and the International Trade Commission. The case alleges that Chinese companies are unloading products below fair market value to beat down the American industry. Government trade officials are expected to issue a decision soon, which could result in 100-percent tariffs on the Chinese products and a leveled playing field for U.S. solar businesses.

Of course, low (and fair) prices are a good thing – especially as renewables help shift energy production away from fossil fuels that contribute to air and water pollution and climate change. That’s why the renewable industry has been booming, but that means there will be some busts, too.

Abound has said it plans to relaunch production by the end of the year, so its progress will serve as a major indicator of the company’s intentions. In the meantime, the government’s renewable-energy loans will likely be debated during the upcoming election season.

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