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Solar Stimulus Meltdown

 

The entrepreneurs who built Solyndra’s manufacturing facility in Fremont, CA were so confident about the demand for their solar energy modules they didn’t just reserve space for an operation large enough to cover the runway at a major international airport.

They went ahead and put up a $733-million, 300,000-square-foot, glass-and-metal edifice described by one employee as a “Taj Mahal” of 21st Century production. Then, according to Bloomberg News, they equipped it with robots that whistled Disney tunes and spa-like showers with liquid crystal displays of the water temperature, among other accoutrements.

The temperature is rising around Solyndra’s top executives, wherever they are–but the heat isn’t coming from hot water pouring out of the factory’s plush showers or sunlight reflecting off the handful of solar units they actually built there.

Solyndra was a poster child for the U.S. Department of Energy’s multi-billion stimulus loan program. The start-up that promised to remake Silicon Valley into Solar Energy Valley received a $535-million loan guarantee from DOE and a 2010 visit from President Obama, who hailed the project as a job-creating engine for the emerging green economy.

That was then, this is now: Solyndra filed for bankruptcy on Sept. 6 and laid off its 1,100 workers. The FBI raided its offices and Congressional watchdogs awakened with a growl, barking up a plethora of investigative committee hearings.

We weren’t in the room when President Obama heard the news, but we suspect he called Leon Panetta and asked if it’s possible to grandfather Solyndra’s Fremont site into the restricted zone known as Area 51, where we keep the remains of aliens who crash-landed in New Mexico in 1947.

Solyndra’s news release on the groundbreaking for the plant claimed the company had a $2-billion backlog in orders for its cylindrical solar modules for commercial rooftops, billed as cheaper to install and more efficient than flat panels. The start-up employed more than 3,000 construction workers 24/7 in a race to get the factory up and running in less than a year.

The construction workers were paid union wages and the construction site was located in the middle of some of the priciest real estate in California. The rate for industrial property in Silicon Valley is estimated by analysts to be the fourth highest in the nation. Solyndra apparently was uninterested in the nearly 1 million square feet of existing industrial space in Fremont when the project got underway in 2009; the firm opted instead to put up the first new factory built in the area in more than a decade.

When completed, the plant had 19 loading docks and an automated rail system that moved parts through the assembly line. Robots that resembled “big freezers with wheels” moved around the factory transporting panels from one machine to another, Bloomberg reports. The Disney tunes alerted workers that a robot was heading their way.

Things began to go wrong soon after the plant was opened. Solyndra planned to use the new facility for the first phase of panel production, finishing and assembling the panel modules at an older plant nearby. Machinery in the older plant reportedly broke down, yielding finished product that proved defective.

In other words, most of the panels smoothly moving out of the 21st-century production line in Fremont never made it to rooftop units. They ended up in the garbage.

As this is being written, news comes from Dow that the Midland, MI-based company is about to launch its Solar Shingles line in the U.S. market. This highly anticipated product promises to revolutionize solar power installation for everyone who doesn’t have a flat roof.

We would never put Dow–a global petrochemical giant with a track record of success stretching back decades–in the same category with flash-in-the-pan Solyndra. But in the post-Solyndra world, we’re taking this news with at least one grain of salt:

When we see Solar Shingles on the house next door, we’ll believe it.

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