It’s been a good news, bad news Friday for the solar industry. Silicon Valley startup Solyndra received a half billion-dollar loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy to build a solar module factory while further up Interstate 880 OptiSolar moved to shut down its manufacturing operations.
OptiSolar too had asked for a federal loan guarantee to complete work on its Sacramento thin-film solar cell plant but a decision on the $300 million application couldn’t come soon enough to save the startup. “We continued to be unable to find a buyer for the technology and manufacuring business, and the board of directors decided that we needed to limit ongoing operational expense,” wrote OptiSolar spokesman Alan Bernheimer in an e-mail.
First reported by the San Francisco Chronicle’s David Baker, OptiSolar will shut down factories in Sacramento and Hayward, Calif., and lay off 200 workers. Earlier this month, OptiSolar sold its pipeline of solar power plants – including a 550-megawatt solar farm that will supply electricity to PG&E (PCG) – to rival First Solar in a $400 million stock deal. At the time, OptiSolar said it intended to focus on manufacturing solar modules.
The news was definitely brighter Friday for Solyndra, which emerged from stealth mode last September with $600 million in funding and $1.2 billion in orders for its solar panels composed of cylindrical tubes imprinted with solar cells. Conventional rooftop solar panels must be tilted to absorb direct sunlight as they aren’t efficient at producing electricity from diffuse light. But the round Solyndra module collects sunlight from all angles, including rays reflected from rooftops. That allows the modules, 40 to a panel, to sit flat and packed tightly together on commercial rooftops, maximizing the amount of space for power production.
The $535 million federal loan guarantee will allow the Fremont, Calif.-based company to build a second factory, which is expected to create 3,000 construction jobs and more than 1,000 other jobs once the plant is in operation. The factory will be able to produce 500 megawatts’ worth of solar panels a year.
“The DOE Loan Guarantee Program funding will enable Solyndra to achieve the economies of scale needed to deliver solar electricity at prices that are competitive with utility rates,” Solyndra CEO Chris Gronet said in a statement. “This expansion is really about creating new jobs while meaningfully impacting global warming.”
Friday’s grant makes good on Secretary of Energy Steven Chu’s pledge to speed up processing of renewable energy loan guarantee applications. The department had come under fire during the previous administration for taking years to dole out grants and loan guarantees for electric car and green energy projects.
Meanwhile, First Solar (FSLR) announced on Friday that it had manufactured 1 gigawatt of thin-film solar cells since beginning commercial production in 2002. It took the Tempe, Ariz., company six years to hit 500 megawatts and only eight months to produce the second 500 megawatts. First Solar’s annual production capacity will reach 1 gigawatt by year’s end, according to the company.