The price of power
As Mark Pinto, Applied Material's executive vice president for energy and environmental solutions, told me in the spring of 2009, "with solar, it's all about cost." And that was the promise of thin films, Solyndra's or otherwise. Simply put, by employing less expensive semiconducting material thin-film solar cells would be cheaper to make, a fact born out by thin-film solar manufacturer First Solar's world-beating module that costs 73 cents per watt in 2011, albeit before the expense of installing it on the roof. "Three to four dollars per watt installed is the magic number," Pinto said.
Solyndra employed a semiconducting substance known as CIGS (copper indium gallium diselenide), the layered materials that allow electrons to flow in a very thin film. In the lab, such combinations turned as much as 20 percent of sunlight into electricity, although panels produced in a factory under less than ideal lab conditions only managed 13 percent at best—and Solyndra's averaged around 10 percent. For comparison, a conventional photovoltaic cell made of crystalline silicon turns nearly 20 percent of incoming photons to electricity, and lasts much longer because it is not as susceptible to corrosion by water vapor.
But in 2008 purified silicon or polysilicon—the sine qua non of silicon solar panels—retailed for as much as $450 per kilogram. The U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), Solyndra and even independent analysts such as Lux Research anticipated that prices would not ease for years as demand continued to grow. "Lux Research's comprehensive risk-weighting of 133 polysilicon construction projects finds that polysilicon constraints will last into 2010," the research firm wrote in a March 2008 press release.
That meant silicon solar cells, which comprised more than 80 percent of the global market for solar power, would not be cheap. "We're trying to compete with conventional sources of electricity with no subsidies," says Henry Kelly, assistant secretary for the DoE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. "That means getting the price of solar down to around 6 cents per kilowatt-hour."
Therefore, thin-film solar cells seemed bright with promise, so bright that the DoE made Solyndra's effort to build a new 28,000-square-meter plant to manufacture the cylindrical modules the recipient of the first-ever loan guarantee for a renewable energy project—$535 million. Gronet shook hands with President Barack Obama on May 26, 2010, and led him on a tour of the federally enabled factory. The DoE expected Solyndra's fabrication plant to produce as much as 7 gigawatts worth of the innovative solar cells in its lifetime, churning out 110 megawatts annually. "The true engine of economic growth will always be companies like Solyndra," Obama said on that occasion. "Government still has the responsibility to help create the conditions in which students can gain an education so they can work at Solyndra, and entrepreneurs can get financing so they can start a company, and new industries can take hold."
Instead, Solyndra produced only 500,000 panels before shuttering, a fraction of the promised potential. Nevertheless, Solyndra still stands by its technology and lays the blame elsewhere for its failure in the marketplace. "We believe that thin film was a great solution for the rooftop, and our ability to hermetically seal it in glass was a good way to ensure that you could use a CIGS material and not run into degradation with exposure to air or water," says Solyndra spokesman David Miller. "The pricing of polysilicon panels certainly was a big issue and the rapid drop in price."