First Energy Department loan guarantee goes to … a solar manufacturer

The Department of Energy announced on Friday that the first energy loan guarantee authorized by the 2005 (!) Energy Policy Act went to a plant that manufactures solar panels:

Energy Secretary Steven Chu today offered a $535 million loan guarantee for Solyndra, Inc. to support the company’s construction of a commercial-scale manufacturing plant for its proprietary cylindrical solar photovoltaic panels. The company expects to create thousands of new jobs in the U.S. while deploying its solar panels across the U.S. and around the world.

“This investment is part of President Obama’s aggressive strategy to put Americans back to work and reduce our dependence on foreign oil by developing clean, renewable sources of energy,” Secretary Chu said. “We can create millions of new, good paying jobs that can’t be outsourced. Instead of relying on imports from other countries to meet our energy needs, we’ll rely on America’s innovation, America’s resources, and America’s workers.”

[Note to Chu and DOE press team: Next time, please don’t issues such big, newsworthy announcements on Fridays. That’s when the previous administration would release news they wanted to bury (see “The four global warming impact studies Bush tried to bury in his final days“).]

Ironically, this loan program was “established to speed the deployment of low-carbon energy technologies but has been plagued–to the consternation of lawmakers–by delays stemming mainly from policy disputes between the Bush administration DOE and Office of Management and Budget,” as Energy Daily (subs. req’d) noted.

That’s right — for over 2 years, the Bush administration couldn’t even decide amongst itself how to use these loans. But then again all of Bush’s pro-technology talk was just that — talk (see “Bush climate speech follows Luntz playbook: “Technology, technology, blah, blah, blah“).

Here are more details from DOE on the company that got the loan:

Solyndra’s photovoltaic systems are designed to provide the lowest installed cost and the highest solar electricity output on commercial, industrial and institutional roof tops, which are a vast, underutilized resource for the distributed generation of clean electricity. Solyndra’s proprietary design transforms glass tubes into high performance photovoltaic panels which are simple and inexpensive to install. By replacing power generated from fossil fuel sources, the electricity produced from the solar panels will reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

Based in Fremont, CA, Solyndra is currently ramping up production in its initial manufacturing facilities. Once finalized, the DOE loan guarantee will enable the company to build and operate its manufacturing processes at full commercial scale.

Solyndra estimates that:

  • The construction of this complex will employ approximately 3,000 people.
  • The operation of the facility will create over 1,000 jobs in the United States.
  • The installation of these panels will create hundreds of additional jobs in the United States.
  • The commercialization of this technology is expected to then be duplicated in multiple other manufacturing facilities.

Further details on the potential advantages of their technology are below.

Here are some more details on how this loan will operate:

Secretary Chu is offering the loan guarantee by signing a “conditional commitment” today, following approval this week by the Department of Energy’s Credit Review Board. Just as homebuyers who have been approved for a loan are required to meet certain conditions before closing, the conditional commitment will require Solyndra to meet an equity commitment as well as other conditions prior to closing. Today’s action signals the Department’s intent to move forward on Solyndra’s application for $535 million loan guarantee provided the company meets its obligations.

Before offering a conditional commitment, DOE takes significant steps to ensure risks are properly mitigated for each project prior to approval for closing of a loan guarantee. The Department performs due diligence on all projects, including a thorough investigation and analysis of each project’s financial, technical and legal strengths and weaknesses. In addition to the underwriting and due diligence process, each project is reviewed in consultation with independent consultants.

Here are comments from Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chair Jeff Bingaman (D-NM):

After years of watching this program struggle to get off the ground, it’s encouraging to see that Secretary Chu’s energetic new leadership at the Department is having an effect. This news is especially welcome at a time when our nation’s economic problems have made it so difficult for companies to find financing for clean energy projects. Congress soon will be considering a new energy bill, and that legislation is likely to include additional authorities for the Secretary and the Administration to help build a new green energy economy for America.”

Scientific American had a good story in October on Solyndra (here).

Energy Daily has more recent details:

Since its founding in 2005 in Fremont, Calif., privately held Solyndra has been developing technology and ramping up manufacturing capacity to produce its proprietary thin film PV system that uses copper, iridium, gallium and selenium (CIGS) rather than silicon.

While thin-film PV typically is about half as efficient as silicon-based PV in converting sunlight to electricity, Solyndra’s system offers design features that allow the generation of considerably more electricity from flat roofs, at a lower installed cost, than flat-panel PV systems, the company says.

Solyndra’s panels employ cylindrical modules that capture sunlight across a 360-degree photovoltaic surface capable of converting direct, diffuse and reflected sunlight into electricity. This self-tracking design eliminates the need for expensive tilted mounting devices required by traditional silicon PV panels to improve the capture of direct light.

The cylindrical modules consist of two glass tubes, one nested within the other. The inner tube is covered with the CIGS thin film, while the outer tube focuses sunlight on the thin film and protects the PV cell. Solyndra’s panels perform optimally when mounted horizontally and packed closely together, making them ideal for the flat roofs found at commercial and industrial facilities throughout the United States and around the world.

Solyndra is currently shipping its systems, comprised of panels and mounting hardware, to fulfill more than $1.2 billion of multi-year contracts with customers in Europe and the United States. A spokesman said Solyndra’s existing, fully automated manufacturing facility in Fremont is ramping towards 110 megawatts per year of capacity.

The DOE-guaranteed loan, expected to provide debt financing for about 73 percent of the project costs, will allow Solyndra to begin construction on a second manufacturing plant. When it is completed, the new plant is expected to have an annual manufacturing capacity of 500 MW–which would place the company among the world’s biggest thin film panel makers.

Over its lifetime of the project, the new plant will produce enough solar panels to generate up to 15 gigawatts of solar electricity, enough to avoid 300 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.

The company currently employs more than 500 people, and estimated that construction of the new plant will employ 3,000 workers, while its operation will create more than 1,000 new jobs.

Solyndra’s financial backers include CMEA Ventures, Madrone Capital Partners, Rockport Capital Partners and Virgin Green Fund.

Yes — venture capital has been critical to the recent explosion in U.S. clean energy companies (see “Despite market downturn, cleantech venture investment hits record $2.6B in 3rd quarter“).

Kudos to Chu for jumpstarting the loan program and focusing on the key job creating technologies of this century — renewable energy.

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10 Responses to First Energy Department loan guarantee goes to … a solar manufacturer

  1. ZS says:

    Kudos for highlighting this, and I hope that CP will continue to document how the money devoted to energy in the stimulus package is actually carried out.

  2. Ron Broberg says:

    It’s good to see Chu moving forward.
    Really good.

    On the other hand, there’s Feinstein trying to hold us back.

  3. Gail D says:

    GIDDYUP !!!

  4. Harrier says:

    So does this mean the Energy Department’s been sitting on a ton of R&D loans that date back to even before the stimulus money was allocated?

    It would be quite nice to see all of that released, and especially under the guidance of as good a director as Chu.

  5. Sasparilla says:

    Great to see this and we have to thank the Bush administration for saving this money (not putting it in dead end projects) for Chu to allocate – George, unintentionally, comes through for us. ;-)

  6. Roger says:

    It’s been said that “When it gets dark the stars come out.”

    Dare we begin to become a bit more hopeful for the future?

    Will Chu, Hansen, Holdren, McKibben, et al. finally be heard?

  7. Mark Shapiro says:

    Thanks for pointing to the Sci Am article about the company and product.

    The Solyndra system has lower installation costs (good) but probably higher manufacturing costs (not so good). As an outside expert said in the article, it comes down to cost and reliability. Of course we would all hope to see a home run here; the DOE loan guarantee means Solyndra gets an at-bat in the big leagues and we all get to see the results.

    This may be a good product for big, flat roofs (its target market); for houses I think that building-integrated PV is the best way to eliminate installation costs.

    Then we need to eliminate the inverter costs for PV. How about a global standard for direct current, to connect DC sources (like PV, batteries, capacitors, and fuel cells) directly to DC devices, such as electronics and LED lighting. That would reduce the cost of PV by another 20%-40%.

  8. Bob Wallace says:

    I see this product as ideal for commercial buildings with flat roofs.

    Solar hours correspond nicely to air conditioning hours. And since the power can be used in the building where it is created there is no additional demand on the grid. (In fact, a load pulled off the grid.)

  9. Spunky says:

    While it’s good to see some of the FLG’s released, why such a big chunk for this single company? The $535M represents 73% of their project costs and they received VC funding of about $600M in October 2008. I thought the new administration liked to spread the wealth around.