With Eye On 1 Gigawatt, SolarCity Moves Into Solyndra’s Old Factory

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Solyndra. After years of political brinksmanship and parsimonious blame-gaming, the bankrupt solar panel manufacturer has been the poster child of clean energy failure since 2011. The news that fast-growing solar provider SolarCity is moving into one of the company’s former buildings a major step forward for both the solar company and the optics of the entire domestic industry. Even though the Department of Energy’s low-carbon technology loan program that backed Solyndra is expected to make taxpayers a $5 to $6 billion return over the course of the average 22-year loan lifecycle, the much-maligned solar manufacturing industry is still in the process of rehabilitating its public image after Solyndra failed to deliver on $500 million in taxpayer-backed loans.

As first reported by the Silicon Valley Business Journal, San Mateo-based SolarCity, whose chairman is SpaceX and Tesla Motors Inc. CEO Elon Musk, recently leased one of the two shuttered Solyndra production facilities. Located in Fremont, California, the 200,000-square-foot facility will serve as a new research and development center for the the company and their recently acquired solar panel maker, Silevo — a purchase meant to help the solar installer vertically integrate into solar panel manufacturing. SolarCity is a leading rooftop solar power provider, and the company’s intent with manufacturing their own panels is to use large economies of scale to further reduce the cost of solar power.

In September, SolarCity broke ground on a new one gigawatt manufacturing facility in New York where they company will also manufacture solar modules. SolarCity has become the nation’s largest solar company that sells, installs, and leases solar systems.

Regarding the acquisition of the former Solyndra facility, SolarCity spokesman Jonathan Bass said that “in this particular case, the Silevo team is growing and needs a larger space. We looked at a number of different buildings, this was available and suits our needs.”

Contrary to Solyndra’s timing, when a glut of Chinese solar panels upended the U.S. market, SolarCity seems to have selected a more auspicious moment to make their foray into manufacturing. Solar power added over 5,000 megawatts of capacity nationwide in 2014, with wind and solar making up just over half of new U.S. electricity capacity in 2014. SolarCity’s decision to manufacture their own panels also reflects the importance of having a reliable manufacturing base that can continue to operate smoothly during periods of global disruption, which will likely occur again as India and China continue to ramp up solar power manufacturing and installation.

Bass said that SolarCity “probably opened 20 or 30 new locations last year,” and that the company hires 300-400 people a month. New figures from the Washington, D.C.-based Solar Foundation back this trend up, showing that in 2014 California’s solar industry added nearly 7,500 jobs, a 15.8 percent year-over-year gain, boosting its nation-leading total to 54,690 — is the first state to ever surpass 50,000 solar jobs.

The picture is not all sunny though. As the Silicon Valley Business Journal reports, while revenue has continued to grow at SolarCity, rising to $58 million in the third quarter of 2014 up from $48 million a year earlier, the company still saw a loss from operations of $74.3 million, and has seen its share price slip 32 percent from its 2013 high.

SolarCity will release its 2014 fourth-quarter earnings report on Wednesday, which will have a significant impact on the company’s market value. With the acquisition of Silevo and the new production facility in Fresno, the company is clearly very forward-minded in the big picture sense now associated with all Elon Musk-affiliated ventures. Three months ago, SolarCity’s management said it expects the company to install up to 1,000 megawatts of solar in 2015.

And 3.2 of these megawatts come from SolarCiy’s recent completion of the largest solar project at any brewery in the country — a 10,000 solar panel installation on ten acres of MillerCoor’s ground in Los Angeles country, enough power to brew over seven million cases of beer a year.