Even After ECD’s Public Struggles and Lay Offs, Fred Upton Requested Loan Guarantee For Michigan Solar Company

At today’s House hearing on the Solyndra loan guarantee, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton questioned Energy Secretary Steven Chu on the decision to approve financial backing of the now-bankrupt solar manufacturer.

Upton lamented the “red flags” that outside parties were raising about the viability of Solyndra in 2009 when the loan guarantee was issued, wondering if those concerns were “either ignored or minimized by senior officials.”

However, during the exact same time period when the Solyndra loan guarantee was being reviewed, Upton asked the DOE to approve a loan guarantee to a Michigan-based solar manufacturer — just months after the company stopped production at its plant and two weeks after announcing it would lay off 400 workers. The company, Uni-Solar, manufactures flexible amorphous-silicon thin film solar materials that be applied to a variety of surfaces.

The Washington Post reports on Upton’s letter to the DOE, co-written with a bi-partisan group of lawmakers, which asked the agency to consider backing Uni-Solar, even while its parent company, Energy Conversion Devices, was publicly facing problems:

ECD once looked so promising that President George W. Bush visited the company’s headquarters in 2006 as he pitched new energy initiatives for the country.

By late 2009, however, the company was struggling. That December, ECD announced a restructuring plan to turn around the company, including laying off 400 employees.

Two weeks later, Upton and the other lawmakers sent their letter to Chu highlighting United Solar and three other clean-energy companies.

Upton has been a vocal critic of the loan guarantee program, criticizing the government for supposedly “picking winners and losers” and “playing venture capitalist.” But before the Solyndra bankruptcy, Upton asked the DOE for loan guarantees to a number of clean energy companies in Michigan, saying he wanted to develop “an aggressive strategy to diversify our economy through investments in growth sectors.” One of them was for Uni-Solar, which had recently suspended manufacturing and announced mass layoffs.

Uni-Solar was seen as a very promising company in 2007 when there was high demand for flexible thin film solar products. In 2009, when the financial downturn and changes to incentive programs around the world reduced demand, the company began to struggle. The incredible pressure from low-cost Chinese module producers also stripped demand.

Even with these public “red flags,” Upton supported government backing of the company. As it turns out, the Department of Energy did not move forward on a loan guarantee.


3 Responses to Even After ECD’s Public Struggles and Lay Offs, Fred Upton Requested Loan Guarantee For Michigan Solar Company

  1. SecularAnimist says:

    What’s really sad about this is that both Solyndra and Uni-Solar had some really terrific technology. Their problems had nothing to do with their technology; they were victims of (1) the inconsistently supportive policies of US and European governments and (2) the consistently supportive policies of the Chinese government.

    Perhaps US solar companies should be looking to China for investment. China might be interested in cornering the market on advanced, innovative thin-film solar technologies, just as they have done with conventional silicon PV.

  2. Doug Bostrom says:

    Darned shame about Uni-Solar. Their panels were uniquely suited for challenging situations involving hail and other kinetic/ballistic things not compatible with more typical construction methods. I was involved in an application using flexible amorphous cells where vandalism was a major liability, shrugged off by these products; in most cases flexible cells will tolerate physical damage including bullet holes with performance loss pretty much down to loss of collection area punched out as opposed to complete loss of a string.

  3. Doug Bostrom says:

    Addendum: the other thing that has dragged down amorphous applications is low efficiency. Such a terrible problem– after all, our available roof area is already packed to overflowing with solar cells, right? ;-)

    Existence is a marvelous virtue. Some might say that panels with very low labor input and somewhat poor efficiency are better than more efficient panels that are too expensive to deploy widely.