Sunday, August 5, 2012

Another Solar Manufacturer Defaults on DOE Loan Guarantee

Abound Solar, a Colorado-based solar panel manufacturer, announced Thursday it is ceasing operations and will be filing for bankruptcy, and yes, it had a loan guarantee from Department of Energy, raising the specter of another Solyndra.

But, as reports across the Internet are being quick to note — the company had only drawn down $70 million of its $400 million loan guarantee, and it had about $300 million in venture capital and private investments.

Concerns about undue influence by high-rolling Democratic party donors will likely also not be an issue, as the firm drew both red and blue investors.

According to a report on Bloomberg Businessweek website, Abound’s investors included –

– Pat Stryker, the billionaire heiress of a medical devices company, who has been a big fundraiser for President Barack Obama.

– Raymond Debbane, who has donated to Republican candidates including Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who led an investigation of the U.S. Energy Department loan guarantee program.

In addition, Abound’s energy loan application earned a bipartisan letter of support from Indiana lawmakers due to the the company’s plans to build a plant in the state.

Republicans Sen. Richard Lugar and Rep. Dan Burton and then-Sen. Evan Bayh and Rep. Pete Visclosky, both Democrats, signed an Oct. 30, 2009 letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, voicing “strong support and encouragement” for the company’s loan application.

GreenTech Media has a good behind-the-scenes report on the events and market forces leading to the company’ s decision to close its doors, laying off 125 employees. While the company cited competition from low-cost Chinese panels as a central cause for its failure, GreenTech reports it hit a cash-flow crunch as it was trying to ramp up a new, more efficient version of its thin-film panel.

The firm awaited $10 million from the DOE and $10 million from its investors, but had a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. The DOE was waiting for the investors, and the investors were waiting for the DOE. Abound’s venture investors include DCM, Technology Partners, GLG Partners, Bohemian Companies, and Invus. DOE money is milestone-based and comes with very specific spending covenants.

Abound’s management found itself in a very sticky spot, locked in a survival race between burn rate and ramping up the factory to run at high enough utilization to lower costs and generate revenue and eventually profit. Add impatient investors, a flinchy DOE, and a media faction hungry for Obama DOE scandals — and it was a queasy mix, almost from the start.

The Department of Energy, possibly learning from Solyndra, has been trying to stay ahead of the story with a post on its website, putting this latest failure in context.

Damien LaVera, deputy director of the DOE’s Department of Public Affairs, acknowledges that loan guarantees to solar manufacturing firms do carry higher risk, but that they account for only 4 percent of department’s loan guarantee portfolio.

In the case of Abound, he said:

Because of the strong protections we put in place for taxpayers, the Department has already protected more than 80% of the original loan amount. Once the bankruptcy liquidation is complete, the Department expects the total loss to the taxpayer to be between 10 and 15 percent of the original loan amount.

The bigger question, he says, is whether the U.S., which invented solar technology, is going to cede the field in manufacturing to China, which in 2010 alone provided $30 billion in subsidies to its solar manufacturers.

Some in Washington believe that the United States cannot, or should not, compete with China when it comes to solar manufacturing – and aren’t willing to make any investments or take on any risks to win the global clean energy manufacturing race. Meanwhile, China . . . is surging to capture roughly half the market. That’s because China realizes this is a huge global market and a competition worth winning.

We respectfully disagree with those who are willing to cede thousands of high paying jobs and the innovations to come over the next decade and beyond to our competitors in China and around the world. Americans invented solar technology, and with the right support our companies can out-innovate and out-build any competitor, anywhere in the world.

The recent ruling from the Department of Commerce, slapping high tariffs on Chinese-made solar cells will have little impact on Chinese dominance in the market, most experts agree, because the major Chinese manufacturers are setting up to circumvent the tariff by moving their operations to other countries.


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