Solyndra's Solar Efficiency Was In Doubt
Solyndra—the California startup that fell into bankruptcy in 2011 following a flood of photovoltaic imports from Asia—earned a unique Department of Energy (DoE) loan guarantee for their innovative technology.
That loan guarantee was at the heart of accusations levied at the Obama administration at the time for “picking winners” by subsidizing one company over others and that the company’s finances were in doubt. But the loan itself was for innovative technology—Solyndra’s unique design leveraging tubular solar bars rather than panels—and the loan and the company’s collapse happened in the midst of the collapse in photovoltaic prices driven by the flood of Asian imports that affected the whole solar industry.
After declaring bankruptcy, Solyndra would go on to sue China for subsidizing their exports to the U.S., which was selling solar panels at a loss and undermining the U.S. market for photovoltaics.
But the innovativeness of Solyndra’s tubular design may have been overblown. The Republican Energy and Commerce Committee report on Solyndra repeatedly notes that the DoE never provided real-world test results of the technology but simply promotional powerpoints and models.
“Solyndra has not commissioned a test which I think is really the gold standard – comparison of the performance of Solyndra vs. regular panel installations at scale on similar roofs. This really should be possible, and I find it disturbing that only modeling results for such a comparison are available.”
Instead of requiring the company provide that data as part of the loan guarantee, DoE adjusted the company’s credit rating to account for the lack of data and the uncertainty it brought to the company’s business prospects.
Additionally, a June 2010 post in the German energy magazine Energetisch Bauen und Sanieren describes performance tests on Solyndra’s solar tubes. According to their year-long analysis, the photovoltaic module had numerous disadvantages including “high costs, lower efficiency, and difficulty cleaning the system.” (translation via Google Translate)
One main issue is that the tubes cast shadows on the reflector foil based on the sun’s position. As a result, the energy yield was actually lower than other currently available products, although it does note that the tubular design performed better in January during periods of snow because of how the snow reflected sunlight.
That report came in the midst of the photovoltaic price collapse, and the company would file for bankruptcy over a year later in September of 2011.