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Archive for the ‘Solyndra’ Category

photo: White House

In Wednesday’s New York Times, I have an exlusive about Silicon Valley solar startup Solyndra’s move to shutter a factory and lay off workers just weeks after it opened a state-of the art plant built with a half-billion-dollar federal loan guarantee:

SAN FRANCISCO — Solyndra, a Silicon Valley solar-panel maker that won half a billion dollars in federal aid to build a state-of-the-art robotic factory, plans to announce on Wednesday that it will shut down an older plant and lay off workers.

The cost-cutting move, which will reduce the company’s previously announced production capacity, is a sign of the notable shift in the prospects for cutting-edge American solar companies, which now face intense price competition from Chinese manufacturers that use more established photovoltaic technologies.

Just seven weeks ago, Solyndra opened Fab 2, a $733 million factory in Fremont, Calif., to make its high-tech solar panels. The new plant was supposed to be the first phase of a rapid expansion of the company.

Instead, Solyndra has decided to shutter the old plant and postpone plans to expand Fab 2, which was built with a $535 million federal loan guarantee.

“Fab 2 is much more efficient and cost-effective than our existing facility,” Brian Harrison, Solyndra’s chief executive, said in an interview. “We’re adjusting our plans to be more in line with where the market is and where our business is at the moment.”

When Solyndra filed for an initial public stock offering in December, it estimated it would have a total production capacity of 610 megawatts by 2013 if its two plants were fully built out. The company now expects it have capacity of 285 to 300 megawatts by 2013.

Solyndra abandoned plans for the stock offering in June, citing market conditions.

The company is the most prominent of a wave of Silicon Valley solar start-ups that hoped to transform the economics of the industry. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Energy Secretary Steven Chu helped break ground on Fab 2 last year, and President Obama made an appearance at the unfinished factory in May to extol Solyndra’s innovative technology.

Mr. Harrison noted that the market had undergone a significant shift since Solyndra filed for the stock offering, with solar module prices plummeting as low-cost Chinese manufacturers like Suntech and Yingli ramped up production.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times Green blog on Wednesday, I follow up on my print story about the impact of low-cost Chinese solar manufacturers on high-tech Silicon Valley startups:

In an article in Wednesday’s paper, I write about how high-tech Silicon Valley solar companies are retooling their strategies to compete with low-cost Chinese manufacturers.

Over the last two years, Chinese solar panel makers like Suntech and Yingli Green Energy have moved aggressively into the United States and now supply about 40 percent of the California market, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a research firm.

China’s growing dominance of the global solar market has been on display in Los Angeles this week at the Solar Power International conference, one of the industry’s biggest annual get-togethers. In a vast exhibition hall, the booth of one Silicon Valley start-up, Solyndra, is surrounded by a sea of Chinese solar companies offering their wares.

As prices for conventional silicon-based solar panels plummet, pressure has increased on Silicon Valley start-ups like Solyndra that make a type of photovoltaic cell called copper indium gallium selenide, or CIGS. Though less efficient at converting sunlight into electricity, the promise of the technology was that it could be made cheaply – at least until the cost of conventional solar module prices fell 40 percent over the past year.

That led Solyndra to start production two months ahead of schedule at its new $733 million factory in Fremont, Calif., and to speed up development of its next-generation solar panel.

“It definitely puts more pressure on us to bring our costs down as quickly as possible by ramping up volume,” said Ben Bierman, Solyndra’s executive vice president for operations and engineering, as driverless carts shuttled stacks of photovoltaic parts to large orange robots at Fab 1, the company’s original factory.

Nathaniel Bullard, a solar analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance in San Francisco, said that success for high-tech Silicon Valley solar companies may depend on finding a big market niche they can dominate.

Solyndra, for instance, makes lightweight solar panels that snap together like Legos and can be installed on large commercial rooftops unable to support heavier conventional panels. On the roof of the company’s headquarters, Mr. Bierman recently gave me an advance look at its new solar panel, which is more powerful but requires far less labor to install.

“We really took a lot of the cost out and accelerated development in response to the Chinese,” Mr. Bierman said.

China presents different challenges for SunPower, which was founded in 1985 and is the granddaddy of Silicon Valley solar companies.

SunPower makes conventional solar panels but has also pursued a high-technology strategy and says it produces the world’s most efficient photovoltaic modules. (Architects and fashion-forward homeowners also favor the company’s sleek jet-black panels.)

In recent years SunPower has increasingly focused on building big photovoltaic power plants to supply electricity to utilities that put a premium on technological performance, reliability and a company’s ability to manage complex projects.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: The White House

In The New York Times on Wednesday, I take a look at how the rapid rise of low-cost Chinese solar panel companies have forced Silicon Valley’s high-tech solar startups to retool for a global market they had not anticipated:

FREMONT, Calif. — A few years ago, Silicon Valley start-ups like Solyndra, Nanosolar and MiaSolé dreamed of transforming the economics of solar power by reinventing the technology used to make solar panels and deeply cutting the cost of production.

Founded by veterans of the Valley’s chip and hard-drive industries, these companies attracted billions of dollars in venture capital investment on the hope that their advanced “thin film” technology would make them the Intels and Apples of the global solar industry.

But as the companies finally begin mass production — Solyndra just flipped the switch on a $733 million factory here last month — they are finding that the economics of the industry have already been transformed — by the Chinese. Chinese manufacturers, heavily subsidized by their own government and relying on vast economies of scale, have helped send the price of conventional solar panels plunging and grabbed market share far more quickly than anyone anticipated.

As a result, the California companies, once so confident that they could outmaneuver the competition, are scrambling to retool their strategies and find niches in which they can thrive.

“The solar market has changed so much it’s almost enough to make you want to cry,” said Joseph Laia, chief executive of MiaSolé. “We have spent a lot more time and energy focusing on costs a year or two before we thought we had to.”

The challenges come despite extensive public and private support for the Silicon Valley companies. Solyndra, one of the biggest firms, has raised more than $1 billion from investors. The federal government provided a $535 million loan guarantee for the company’s new robot-run, 300,000-square-foot solar panel factory, known as Fab 2.

“The true engine of economic growth will always be companies like Solyndra,” President Obama said in May during an appearance at the then-unfinished factory.

But during the year that Solyndra’s plant was under construction, competition from the Chinese helped drive the price of solar modules down 40 percent. Solyndra rushed to start cranking out panels on Sept. 13, two months ahead of schedule, and it has increased marketing efforts to make the case to customers that Solyndra’s more expensive panels are cost-effective when installation charges are factored in.

“It definitely puts more pressure on us to bring our costs down as quickly as possible by ramping up volume,” said Ben Bierman, Solyndra’s executive vice president for operations and engineering, as driverless carts shuttled stacks of photovoltaic parts to large orange robots at Fab 1, the company’s original factory.

To be sure, Silicon Valley companies like Solyndra, Nanosolar and MiaSolé continue to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in customer orders and some plan to expand local manufacturing. But the rapid rise of low-cost Chinese manufacturers has made investors — who once envisioned the region’s future as Solar Valley — skittish about backing new capital-intensive start-ups.

“I don’t see another Solyndra being done,” said Anup Jacob, whose private equity firm, Virgin Green Fund, has invested significantly in Solyndra. “It’s very difficult today to show a business plan to investors and say, ‘I need hundreds of millions to a billion dollars to get to scale.’ ”

In the third quarter of 2010, venture capital investment in solar companies plummeted to $144 million from $451 million in the year-ago quarter, according to the Cleantech Group, a San Francisco research firm.

The paucity of capital and the sheer size of Chinese solar panel makers have proved particularly problematic for companies like Solyndra and MiaSolé, which make photovoltaic cells using a material called copper indium gallium selenide, or CIGS.

Unlike conventional solar cells, which are made from silicon wafers, CIGS cells can be deposited on glass or flexible materials, much as ink is printed on rolls of newspaper. Though the technology is less efficient at converting sunlight into electricity, the promise of “thin film” solar cells was that they could be made cheaply.

However, producing CIGS cells on a mass scale has turned out to be a formidable technological challenge, requiring the invention of specialized manufacturing equipment.

While Silicon Valley companies were working on the problem, silicon prices fell and Chinese companies like JA Solar, Suntech and Yingli Green Energy rapidly expanded production of conventional solar panels, supported by tens of billions of dollars in inexpensive credit from the Chinese government as well as other subsidies like cheap land.

Arno Harris, chief executive of Recurrent Energy, a San Francisco solar developer acquired by Sharp last month, said he chose to sign a supply deal with Yingli because the Chinese company offered low prices, quality products and financing.

“We realized that would enable us to bid competitive power prices from projects that could also be efficiently financed,” Mr. Harris said in an e-mail. “It may seem obvious to state it this simply, but declining prices are the key to driving the next era of demand for solar.”

Chinese solar panel makers now supply about 40 percent of the California market, the largest in the United States, and the bulk of the European market, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a research and consulting firm.

“We grow every year with double revenue and almost double capacity,” said Fang Peng, the chief executive of JA Solar, in a telephone interview from the company’s Shanghai headquarters. “At end of the year, we will have 1.8 gigawatts of capacity and will have grown from 4,000 employees at the beginning of this year to more than 11,000.”

By comparison, Solyndra expects to have a total production capacity of 300 megawatts by the end of 2011.

The competition from the Chinese has prompted some Silicon Valley companies, like AQT Solar, to pursue new strategies to survive.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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Photo: The White House

In my new Green State column on Grist, I attend President Obama’s speech at a Silicon Valley solar panel factory:

Silicon Valley in the Internet age has not made for great presidential photo ops. The Valley’s computer-chip factories were off-shored decades ago and (Google excepted) the software giants that supplanted hardware companies just didn’t have the same pizzazz — T-shirted geeks writing code can’t compete with guys and gals in bunny suits tending big futuristic machines.

The rise of green tech has changed all that. The Valley is back in the business of building stuff — solar panels, electric cars, fuel cells, and various energy efficient widgets and gadgets.

And so when President Obama’s helicopter landed Wednesday morning at Solyndra, a solar module maker, a television-ready tableau awaited — a huge American flag hung in an unfinished factory, shiny high-tech thin-film solar panels were on display and workers in hard hats mingled with an audience of some 200 engineers, scientists, venture capitalists, and California’s patron saint of green tech PR events, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“We’ve got to go back to making things. We’ve got to go back to exports. We’ve got to go back to innovation,” said Obama on Wednesday in Fremont as Solyndra employees snapped photos with their iPhones.

“The true engine of economic growth will always be companies like Solyndra, will always be America’s businesses,” he continued. “But that doesn’t mean the government can just sit on the sidelines.  Government still has the responsibility to help create the conditions in which students can gain an education so they can work at Solyndra, and entrepreneurs can get financing so they can start a company, and new industries can take hold.”

It’s an apt choice of words, for the fortunes of green tech startups like Solyndra have become entwined with the government as the Obama administration attempts to jumpstart a transition to a clean energy economy. The sprawling solar module plant we’re standing in — its construction is employing 3,000 workers — is being financed thanks in large part to a $535 million loan guarantee the Department of Energy granted to Solyndra last year.

You can read the rest of the column here.

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photo: Solyndra

In The New York Times on Friday, I write that Solyndra, a Silicon Valley photovoltaic module maker, has become the first solar startup in years to brave the public markets:

Solyndra, a well-financed solar module maker, filed a registration statement for an initial public offering on Friday to raise $300 million to expand its manufacturing capacity.

It would be the biggest solar-related offering in years and follows the stock-market debut of the electric car battery-maker A123 Systems in September.

Based in Fremont, Calif., Solyndra emerged from stealth mode in October 2008 having secured $600 million in venture financing and $1.2 billion in orders. The company, founded in 2005 by veterans of the chip equipment maker Applied Materials, has since raised nearly $200 million more in venture funds.

The company makes cylindrical thin-film solar modules designed for commercial rooftops. The round modules collect sunlight from all angles, allowing the solar panels to be placed horizontally and packed close together, increasing efficiency and lowering installation costs, according to Solyndra.

Solyndra secured a $535 million loan guarantee from the United States Department of Energy in March to help finance the construction of a second factory near its headquarters. In September, the company applied for an additional government loan guarantee to help pay for the second phase of the $1.38 billion factory, according to the registration statement.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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esolar_8
photo: eSolar

In Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, I write about how the rise of green technology is changing the way Silicon Valley venture capitalists do business:

Silicon Valley venture capitalists have always been about inventing the future — taking a wild idea, nurturing it with cash and creativity and giving birth to new products, companies and industries we once couldn’t imagine and now can’t conceive of living without: the Web, Google, the iPhone, Twitter.

But as green technology becomes the latest tech wave to break from the nation’s entrepreneurial epicenter, it’s now all about companies reinventing the past. Solar power companies, electric car start-ups and algae biofuel ventures aim to remake century-old trillion-dollar industries on a global scale.

Venture capitalists poured $4 billion into green-tech start-ups in 2008 — nearly 40% of all tech investments in the U.S., according to a survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Green-tech investment plunged in the first half of 2009 to $513 million as the recession dragged on, but there are signs of a rebound: Silicon Valley’s Khosla Ventures announced this month that it had raised $1.1 billion — the biggest first-time fund in a decade — that would be largely devoted to investing in green-tech start-ups, many in Southern California.

But green-tech companies face unique challenges, including global markets, tough technological hurdles and a future shaped by government incentives and regulatory policy. Those challenges are changing the game on Sand Hill Road.

“If you’re starting a Web 2.0 company, your basic needs are personnel and servers — there is no physical product, no manufacturing capacity, no inventory, no steel in the ground,” VantagePoint’s Salzman said, referring to software-based companies that provide services over the Internet.

Green-tech start-ups, he said, often need big money and investors steeped in big science and big government.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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solyndra-rooftop-2

photo: Solyndra

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.

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