Weld County suspected storm clouds over Abound

February 28, 2012 by Amy · Comments Off
Filed under: Archive, New Energy Economy 

Update: The personal property tax incentive was not extended to Vestas either for the 2012 budget. In the 2011 budget Vestas received $96,252 in tax incentives. Commissioner Sean Conway said the vote to discontinue the incentives going forward for both Abound and Vestas was 5-0 in December 2011. The same measure was defeated for the 2011 budget on a 3-2 vote.

Bad news for employees and taxpayers, Abound Solar, Colorado’s high profile manufacturer of “next-generation thin-film cadmium telluride solar modules” and recipient of a $400 million Department of Energy loan, just announced it is laying off 70 percent (280 employees) of its Colorado workforce.

Some suspected storm clouds on the horizon for Abound. Despite a late fall PR blitz that included a “news story” in the Denver Business Journal that read more like an Abound press release, the Commissioners of Weld County, where Abound’s manufacturing plant is located, acted on their suspicions that all was not right with the company and suspended nearly $100,000 in property tax incentives for 2012.

In 2011 Weld County extended $98,445 in personal property tax incentives to the solar module manufacturer, but when it came up for renewal in December for the 2012 budget, commissioners decided to save the taxpayers that money instead. Commissioner Sean Conway explained he wasn’t convinced that Abound actually was creating jobs for county residents, which was the intended purpose of tax incentives.

Just days after the Weld County Commissioners reviewed the county’s 2012 budget that excluded Abound incentives, CEO Craig Witsoe defended Abound in the Denver Business Journal calling themselves the “anti-Solyndra.”  Witsoe further explained that even though Abound still wasn’t profitable after four years in business and a $400 million taxpayer-guaranteed loan, it was on the brink of boosting production. So far, Abound has drawn down only $70 million of the $400 million.

For more than a year the Independence Institute’s investigative reporter Todd Shepherd and the energy policy center have  been detailing Abound Solar’s problems. We take no pleasure reporting about people losing their jobs or taxpayers’ losing their money. Unfortunately, Abound Solar is yet more proof that government should not be in the venture capitalist business because it has a nasty habit of picking losers. At least for the Weld County taxpayers, their commissioners came to that realization in time to save them $100,000.

Abound Solar: still no jobs in Tipton, Indiana

January 29, 2012 by Amy · Comments Off
Filed under: Archive, New Energy Economy 

How long will Abound Solar string along the good folks of Tipton, Indiana?

In July 2010, President Obama announced a $400 million taxpayer-guaranteed loan to Colorado-based Abound Solar, the majority of which was intended to help the thin-filmed solar panel company expand to Tipton, Indiana. The Indiana Economic Development Corporation also provided $12 million in performance-based tax credits and training grants. So many believed Abound’s original plan to bring jobs to the Tipton area in 2010.

Eighteen months later, and still no Abound Solar jobs for Indiana. With a headline that sounds more like the dreaded vote of confidence InsideIndianaBusiness.com reports, “Abound Solar Still Committed to Indiana” and plans to begin hiring in the second half of 2012. They will have to work fast to make the Abound facilities usable because apparently they still don’t have any utilities.

More problems Abound

January 11, 2012 by Amy · Comments Off
Filed under: Archive, New Energy Economy 

Lux Research, a self-described “independent research and advisory firm providing strategic advice and ongoing intelligence on emerging technologies” including solar, predicted that 2012 will not be kind to Colorado’s Abound Solar. Lux’s Matt Feinstein wrote in PV Magazine:

Abound. One of the more prominent CdTe start-ups, Abound has been plagued recently by several departures from its management team and industry rumors that its modules haven’t been performing as expected. Perhaps more importantly, First Solar has abandoned its research and development activities in CIGS to concentrate on its core CdTe technology.

This isn’t news to our readers. We already wrote about Abound’s management shakeups and First Solar’s double down on CdTe panels. However, the news story here is that a research company specializing in solar technology is predicting it, and PV Magazine, a trade publication for the “international photovoltaic community,” is publishing it. The question is whether advocates for Colorado’s new energy economy will acknowledge it.

Unfortunately for taxpayers who provided a $400 million loan guarantee for Abound, 2012 may be the year that the sun sets on Pat Stryker’s pet project.

More bad news Abound

December 14, 2011 by Amy · Comments Off
Filed under: Archive, New Energy Economy 

With prices tanking along with sales, First Solar, the world’s largest manufacturer of thin-filmed solar panels, “slashed its profit and sales forecast today and said it will fire about 100 employees, most of them at a Santa Clara, California, research center, the Tempe, Arizona-based company said today in a filing,” Bloomberg reports.

In addition, First Solar is abandoning its quest to develop copper-indium-gallium-selenide technology, or CIGS, the same type of solar panel that Solyndra produced before its infamous bankruptcy.

In a column titled “First Solar Sounds Alarm Bells,” the Motley Fool reports that the world is catching on to the fact that thin-filmed solar panels are woefully inefficient:

First Solar is beginning to be hit hard by falling module prices and a generally weak solar market right now. If I had to read between the lines, I would say that more efficient modules from competitors like Trina Solar (NYSE: TSL ) , Yingli Green Energy (NYSE: YGE ) , and Suntech Power (NYSE: STP ) are beginning to become more favored as sales prices fall.

As a result, First Solar’s stock is dropping like a stone, down more than 20 percent just today.

Why is this bad news for Colorado-based Abound Solar?

Because First Solar now plans to “double-down” on its production of cadmium-telluride solar panels, the same kind that Abound produces. As we reported a few weeks ago, Abound cannot compete with First Solar on either volume or price, so First Solar’s plans to “double-down” on cadmium-telluride, thin-filmed production can’t be welcome news within the walls of Abound Solar. It also isn’t good news for taxpayers, since they are on the hook for a $400 million Department of Energy loan guarantee.

Thin-filmed solar a foolish investment

December 9, 2011 by Amy · Comments Off
Filed under: Archive, New Energy Economy 

Taxpayers may have been forced to invest in solar panels, but private investors with a choice aren’t quite so foolish. From today’s Motley Fool column titled “Here are some American eco-investments to avoid” including thin-filmed solar:

I’m dogging (oo-er! — Ed) one of my own investments here, First Solar (NASDAQ: FSLR.US), but outside of that one success story, it’s hard to find anyone who has made any real progress in thin-film solar. Ascent Solar and Energy Conversion Devices at least made it to the public markets before running into problems, and likely an eventual bankruptcy. Solyndra, which was based on thin-film technology, was a colossal failure, and the CIGS technology it used has failed to live up to industry expectations.

But the biggest reason thin-film solar is a money pit is that there are too many higher-efficiency modules on the market at attractive prices making thin-film uncompetitive. Thin-film solar is lower efficiency requiring more land, and other installation costs versus competitors. For a look at how important these balance of system costs are becoming, check out my article about these costs here.

Ouch! Right now Ascent Solar’s stock is sitting at .63 cents, and Energy Conversion Devices’ stock price is up to .36 cents. ECD is where you’ll find former Abound Solar VP Julian Hawkins. Abound, which also makes thin-filmed solar modules, isn’t listed because its not a publicly traded company. Based on what Motley Fool said above, Abound likely would be a foolish investment too.

Is Colorado “addicted” to economic activity?

December 6, 2011 by Amy · Comments Off
Filed under: Archive, New Energy Economy 

Part two of a series responding to a Denver Post guest column titled “Is Colorado addicted to oil?” from Gary Wockner of Clean Water Action.

Gary Wockner’s editorial is long on conjecture and short on facts. It’s little more than 20 questions, which could be answered if Wockner bothered to do a modicum of research. I answered his headline, “Is Colorado addicted to oil?” in my first post. Now I’ll address his next questions about the “role” of the oil and gas industry in Colorado’s economy.  Wockner begins:

A few years ago, President George W. Bush stood in front of Congress in a nationally televised speech and said that “America is addicted to oil.” And then he spoke about how we must end that addiction for the good of our economy, our environment, our national security, and our future. Recently, after another huge oil field was discovered in Weld County, Gov. John Hickenlooper was quoted in The Denver Post as saying, ‘Anadarko’s announcement today shows once again that Colorado is a leader in the energy sector of our country’s economy. We are thrilled to see the company plan a significant investment in Colorado.’

Addicted or thrilled? Which is it?

Obviously Wockner isn’t thrilled, which is the whole point of his demogoguing.  Yet, it isn’t unreasonable for Coloradans including Governor Hickenlooper to be thrilled about Anadarko’s announcement because we, our economy and way of life, are reliant upon petroleum.  As I wrote in my first response, Colorado like any other culture not living in the 13th century needs to have petroleum. Until we find some type of cost effective alternative, petroleum is it. Personally, I am thrilled, but I can’t speak every other Coloradans so I won’t try.

Wockner continues:

Obviously, these are two very conflicting views of the role oil should play in our economy and our future, and they raise honest questions the public needs to address: What is the actual role that oil and gas plays in our economy? Where do all the billions of dollars go?

Wockner and his Clean Water Action are opposed to fossil fuels so they are the ones in a state of conflict, which makes me wonder if Wockner is opposed to economic activity. In our economy, private companies provide goods and services that consumers want who voluntarily exchange some form of currency for products, which benefits both groups as business profits by meeting consumers’ wants and needs. Producers can earn a profit, and consumers obtain the goods and services they want. So the role of oil and gas is to provides goods and services that consumers want. The oil and gas industry then returns some of that profit to communities in the form of capital investment, charitable contributions, dividends to shareholders or anything else a private company wants. It’s not up to Wockner and his ilk to decide how the oil and gas industry spends its profits.

In Colorado, the oil and gas industry is a major economic player. Besides using fossil fuels to heat our homes (it’s -8 degrees right now), power our cars, produce precious solar panels, and make thousands of items we use every single day, here are a few facts about the economic impact of oil and gas in Colorado according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA):

  • The OIL & GAS industry in Colorado directly employs 50,000 people and supports over 190,000 jobs in the state and provides $12.4 billion in total labor income and $24 billion in value added economic output annually; this is 9.3% of the total in the state.
  • The NATURAL GAS industry in Colorado directly employs 30,000 people and supports over 137,000 jobs in the state and $8.4 billion in total labor income and $18.4 billion in value added economic output annually; this is 7.3% of the total in the state.
  • Our industry is responsible for roughly 6% of total employment in Colorado.
  • Only the cities of Denver, Colorado Springs, and Boulder have more jobs than the State’s oil and natural gas industry.
  • In Colorado, more than 75 percent of residential homes use natural gas as their primary energy source for home heating, one of the highest shares in the nation.3
  • Colorado had more than 40,000 oil & gas wells in production.
  • Ten of the Nation’s 100 largest natural gas fields and three of its 100 largest oil fields are found in Colorado.
  • Colorado produces 1/4 of all coalbed methane in the U.S.
  • Severance tax is levied on extraction of metals, coal, oil and gas and is part of TABOR revenue base. Oil and gas pay over 90% of the state’s severance tax.
  • The total assessed values for taxable Oil and Gas property in 2010 was $6.25 billion or 5.63% of the state total

Yesterday I spent an hour talking with John Christiansen and Brian Cain of Anadarko Petroleum Corporation on my radio show. Anadarko is one of the world’s largest independent natural gas and oil exploration and production companies in the world. It had total sales revenue of just under $11 billion for 2010 according to its most recent annual financial report.

Anadarko, its employees, and the community were celebrating the ribbon cutting on their newly expanded field office in Evans, Colorado. It’s an unassuming but comfortable 46,000 square foot build out paid for by Anadarko. It’s efficient with video conferencing to save the company time and money and a modest kitchen for employees who don’t want to leave for lunch. No taxpayer-guaranteed loan here (think Solyndra) so no 300,000 square feet of “the Taj Mahal”, no spa showers with liquid-crystal water temperature displays, no conference rooms with glass walls that change from clear to smokey with the touch of a button, no robots whistling Disney tunes. When I asked why Anadarko’s new building didn’t have a spa, the response was simple, “it’s not necessary.”

Globally, Anadarko employs roughly 4,400 an increase of 10 percent since 2007 after a decline from 2006.

In Colorado, Andarako employs roughly 260 people out of Evans field office, another 100 in Brighton and couple hundred more in Denver office. The average salary is between $70,000 and $80,000. And unlike Abound Solar, Cain and Christiansen told me that Anadarko is hiring.

Because of the recent discovery of up to 1.5 billion BOE in the Wattenberg Field, Anadarko expects to invest $1 billion in Weld County alone in 2012. County Commissioner Sean Conway says the additional oil and gas activity could mean as much as $50 million in additional revenue to county coffers. This is all direct investment. The ripple effect of this economic activity will be profoundly positive for Colorado and Weld County.

Also, giving back to the community part of the mission of the oil and gas industry, which certainly shows in Weld County. At the ribbon cutting yesterday, Anadarko handed a check for $25,000 to the Boys and Girls Club of Weld County. A combination of several oil and gas companies, including Anadarko, Noble, Encana, Halliburton, and others, have provided $250,000 for the Weld Food Bank. By contrast, Abound, which has its manufacturing plant in Weld County, has received a $400 million taxpayer guaranteed loan from the DOE, and tax credits from Weld County, is not a contributor to the food bank. Vestas Blades, also with manufacturing in Weld County, has given a one time donation of $750.

But where the money goes should be irrelevant because a private company can do what it wants with its money. However, if Anadarko or any other oil and gas company mismanages its profits, can’t remain competitive, or can’t provide goods, services people want then it will go out of business (unless it gets a DOE loan). And it should.

Perhaps Colorado is “addicted” to oil because we are “addicted” to a modern lifestyle and economic activity. We’re also addicted to water and oxygen. Nothing wrong with that.

Next, I’ll address Wockner’s gratuitous attacks on Weld County and Greeley.

For fun, which of these was paid for with a taxpayer-guaranteed loan?

Lavish offices.

Lavish offices.

Evans Office

Evans Office

Pat Stryker and the West Wing

December 1, 2011 by Amy · Comments Off
Filed under: Archive, New Energy Economy 

White House visitor logs reveal that a “Pat Stryker” had a meeting in the West Wing in October 2009 according to the Sunlight Foundation. So far Sunlight has been unable to confirm if the meeting was with the Pat Stryker, Abound Solar investor, billionaire heiress, and Obama bundler. Although, it’s hard to believe that another Pat Stryker would have that type of access.

We’ve detailed Stryker’s connection to Obama, Democrat causes, and Abound, which received a $400 taxpayer guaranteed loan in 2010. Sunlight says it’s “unclear” if Stryker discussed Abound with the Obama administration.

Sunlight also revealed that newly filed documents show Abound Solar “is just the latest firm receiving a DOE loan guarantee—a program enabled by the 2009 stimulus bill—to hire representation in Washington. Of the 24 companies awarded loans, 16 currently employ lobbyists, and 11 of those specifically mention the loan guarantee program in their lobbying reports.”

Who are the lobbyists?

The three B&D Consulting lobbyists hired by Abound Solar are all former government officials. One is Joshua Andrews, a former aide to Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., who has defended the loan guarantee program and likened the GOP attacks to bomb-throwing. Eshoo’s district includes many of the venture capital firms who have invested in green technology companies like Solyndra. She also serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee, although not on the subcommittee that has been holding hearings.

Another lobbyist, Cathy Tripodi, is a former Department of Energy official and used to be the director of energy at the Indiana Economic Development Corporation. A third lobbyist, Andrew Ehrlich, is a former chief of staff to the Republican leadership in the late 1990s, is a “recognized figure in Washington circles” and a “leading thinker on market-based strategies in the energy, tax and health care sectors,” according to his bio.

Based on Abound’s latest problems, hiring lobbyists for more favorable treatment from government might be all the company has left.

Problems Abound?

November 29, 2011 by Amy · Comments Off
Filed under: Archive, New Energy Economy 

Update: Eric Wesoff of GreenTechSolar corrected something we quoted him on regarding Abound Solar’s $400 million DOE loan guarantee. “Abound has drawn down much of its $400 million DOE loan guarantee only $70 million of its $400 million loan guarantee in order to fund its factory buildout.”

Eric Wesoff of GreenTechSolar is curious about what is going on at Abound Solar. Are top executives just finding sunnier pastures elsewhere or are they jumping ship before it goes down Solyndra style?

In July 2010, President Obama announced that Colorado-based Abound Solar was the recipient of a $400 million taxpayer guaranteed loan as part of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) now infamous loan program. Abound would use the money to expand production in Colorado and open another manufacturing plant in Tipton, Indiana, promising at least an additional 850 jobs.

Fast forward to fall 2011, the demand and price for solar panels have plummeted, and three top executives have left the thin-film solar panel manufacturer. Wesoff spoke with all three before their announced departures and all were optimistic about Abound Solar and the industry:

I spoke with Tom Tiller, Abound Solar’s CEO a few months ago. He expressed optimism for the future of the VC and DOE-enabled cadmium telluride solar startup. That was shortly before he left his CEO post because of what he said were “unexpected issues in our family.”

Tiller will remain as Chairman while Craig Witsoe replaces him as CEO. According to Tiller, his new role will have less of a day-to-day involvement. Wesoff continues:

I spoke with Russ Kanjorski, VP of Marketing at the Colorado-based Abound Solar, at the Intersolar show in San Francisco in July about the trajectory of his firm. Kanjorski was sanguine about Abound’s technology and manufacturing ramp. Kanjorski has since jumped ship to early-stage Concentrated PV firm Semprius.

Kanjorski has a history with another failing energy company that also received taxpayer money. Fred Barnes reported in the Weekly Standard in July 2010:

Russell Kanjorski, the vice president for marketing at Abound Solar, was one of the principals in another energy company in northeast Pennsylvania, called Cornerstone Technologies LLC, which attracted $9 million in federal grants before it halted operations in 2003 and later filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. As reported by the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, “Cornerstone reported $14,100 in assets compared with $1.34 million in debt” in its bankruptcy filing. The $9 million in federal grants to Cornerstone were earmarked by Kanjorski’s uncle, Representative Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Capital Markets, Insurance and Government Sponsored Enterprises.

The latest top executive to leave Abound is senior vice president Julian Hawkins, and Wesoff spoke with him before his announced departure as well:

Last month at the Solar Power International show in Dallas, TX, I spoke with Julian Hawkins, Senior VP at Abound Solar. Hawkins was enthusiastic about Abound’s prospects. But not enthusiastic enough to keep him from joining the precariously functioning Energy Conversion Devices as CEO. Energy Conversion Devices…is a long-struggling supplier of flexible amorphous silicon (a-Si) photovoltaic laminates, with a deflated stock price amidst a “Restructuring Plan” and recent suspension of its manufacturing operations. It is difficult to envision ECD surviving much longer as an independent public entity.

Why would three enthusiastic top executives with $400 million in taxpayer guaranteed loans leave their positions just as the company is expanding its Colorado manufacturing and just ahead of an expected major build out in Indiana? Wesoff sarcastically suggests suicide missions or…

perhaps these executives have read the writing on the wall and want to get out of Abound before it becomes another Solyndra and attracts the attention of Fox News and the Tea Party. Recipients (Beacon Power) or even applicants (Next Autoworks) of DOE loans have had a run of bad luck lately.

Abound has problems besides revolving door executives. In December 2010, then CEO Tom Tiller told the Indianapolis Business Journal that “90 percent of Abound’s sales are in Europe, and most of the production from the expanded factories will be exported to the European region.” Since then, solar panel prices have plummeted and so has demand from its major market Europe. The European financial crisis has forced countries to slash subsidies. In Germany, the largest purchaser of solar panels in Europe, sales are expected to drop by 30 percent.

The Economist reports that the market is seriously oversaturated. Capacity has tripled over the last two years in response to European demand and now much of that is being shut down. Mountains of unwanted solar panels are forcing manufacturers to slash margins in order to avoid being stuck with dated product.

Early this year the average panel price was around $1.75 per watt; by the year’s end it could be as low as $1.10. That is less than the cost price for many Western manufacturers and small Asian ones, several of which have already gone bust. They include Solyndra…

In September Hawkins told Bloomberg that with expected ramped up manufacturing to 200 megawatts, Abound could near the $1 per watt by the end of 2012. Still that may not be enough. Jenny Chase, lead solar analyst for Bloomberg New Energy Finance said Abound will need to be near .91 cents per watt.

But the only way to get there is volume, and Abound, which produced 30 megawatts in 2010, didn’t even crack the top ten thin-filmed solar panel manufacturers. Solyndra was number seven.

At 1,400 megawatts, First Solar is the world’s largest thin-filmed solar panel manufacturer. It’s next closet competitor pumps out a mere 195 megawatts. Also, First Solar produces the same type of cadmium-telluride (CdTe), thin-filmed panel as Abound only much cheaper, and the panel itself is more efficient. This is a problem for Abound as Wesoff warns:

Abound still has to contend with thin-film leader First Solar. First Solar’s 87-watt CdTe panels have an 11.7 percent conversion efficiency and a cost of $0.74 per watt with expectations of reaching the mid $0.60s in 2012.

Wesoff also writes that Abound already has “drawn down much of its $400 million DOE loan guarantee” and Indiana based plant is not expected online until 2014. The Kokomo Tribune reports that in the wake of the Solyndra bankruptcy some Tipton residents are concerned about whether or not the expansion will happen.

Less than a year ago, Abound relied heavily upon the European market. Now, it anticipates shipping “half its 45 megawatts of sales this year” to its new market in India. But that’s First Solar territory, which announced its shipments to India will be 200 megawatts for five projects in 2012. GigaOM explains that CdTe panels produced by both manufacturers are well-suited for India, but First Solar’s size gives it an advantage:

First Solar’s ability to produce solar panels more cheaply than others is its true advantage because the national solar program seeks competitive bids and selects those who promise to complete projects at lower prices. Manufacturing at a large scale makes it possible to keep solar panel prices low, and at this point, First Solar is the largest non-silicon solar panel maker worldwide and the only one with an army of factories and big sales team.

Bottom line is that for Abound to compete, it must expand. It received a $400 million taxpayer guaranteed loan to do so, yet as of today it isn’t hiring. It currently has zero job openings and the Tipton plant isn’t even listed as a possible location. Perhaps that’s because demand for and price of its product both have dropped. Maybe that’s why the three executives have different positions.

Get rid of renewable mandates and solar subsidies

November 11, 2011 by Amy · Comments Off
Filed under: Archive, New Energy Economy 

This column appeared originally on Townhall.com

End stupid energy policy: Get rid of solar subsidies and renewable mandates

By Amy Oliver Cooke and Michael Sandoval

If lawmakers really cared about consumers, they would ditch expensive renewable energy mandates that require a subsidized market for resources that are not practical on a large scale.  It’s a classic case of putting the cart before the horse; policy came before practical application.

The Department of Energy (DOE) reports that 24 states and the district of Columbia have renewable energy mandates ranging from Maine’s high of 40 percent to Pennsylvania’s low of 8 percent.  Also known as a “Renewable Portfolio Standard” (RPS), these policies require that energy providers ignore practicality and price in order to obtain a minimum amount of electricity by a specific date from sources that environmental zealots consider “renewable,” such as solar and wind.

Five other states, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, and Vermont, placate special interest groups while remaining more realistic with “non-binding goals” rather than an RPS.

Does it matter if the resources don’t exist to fulfill the RPS? No. Government will subsidize the manufacturing of those resources. Does it matter if those resources are little more than science projects? No. Government still will subsidize them.

The U.S. doesn’t have a corner on the market of misguided energy policy. Europe is also a major contributor to the myth of enlightened energy policies.

These mandates are rooted in a clean, green fantasy, and a market must be invented to fulfill it. If that isn’t ridiculous enough, government then cannibalizes the market it created by subsidizing companies where the market is already saturated.

Colorado, with its 30 percent RPS, is a perfect case study of an energy absurdity.  In particular, its highly subsidized solar panel industry likely is contributing to a global decline in the market that threatens the very fantasy it is trying to fulfill.

General economics of the solar industry

To say the taxpayer-supported solar panel industry is struggling is an understatement. The Economist explains that subsidized manufacturing and purchasing distorted the market.  Prices declined but subsidies didn’t. As a result, global “demand for solar panels doubled last year driven by soaring growth in Germany and Italy.”

American manufacturing, much of it subsidized with taxpayer guaranteed loans, ramped up in response to European demand as well as the push to meet U.S. state renewable energy mandates.

What a difference a year makes. Facing a massive debt crisis and the enormous cost of the subsidies to European electricity consumers, governments greatly reduced their subsidies and demand for solar panels plummeted.

The Economist concludes that the market is grossly oversaturated. “In expectation of more roaring growth, the world’s panel-making capacity was tripled over two years, 2010-11…Much of the excess capacity is being shut down, yet there are already plenty of unwanted panels out there. To avoid being stuck with old stock—a ruinous prospect when prices are falling rapidly—panel-makers are now slashing margins.”

This is a disaster for U.S. solar panel manufacturers, even low-cost ones. With a saturated market and cuts in European subsidies, manufacturers are stuck with panels they can’t sell at cost.

First Solar

Tempe-based First Solar, manufacturer of one of the world’s cheapest thin-filmed panel, is in a world of hurt.  Its stock price has crashed from a 52 week high of $175.45 to under $50.

Just recently, First Solar CEO Rob Gillette was fired and replace with co-founder Michael Ahern. Not even Ahern has complete faith in the company he started. He sold off “notable quantities of First Solar stock over the years, including about $150 million worth in March and August of this year, and $142 million in February 2010.”

Reuters reports a “massive oversupply of solar panels and the plummeting costs of polysilicon panels are putting pressure on First Solar’s core business. The firm’s thin-film panels are among the industry’s cheapest, but Chinese-made polysilicon panels are still cheaper—and increasingly so.”

“It has become a familiar story in the solar industry—and a key reason why Solyndra, another thin-film solar panel maker, fell apart. Government subsidy cutbacks have reduced demand, while cheaper panel prices have given an edge to Chinese manufacturers.”

If the largest producer of the least expensive, thin-filmed panels is struggling under the weight of too much supply (including cheap Chinese panels), not enough demand, and not enough taxpayer money, why would we subsidize more solar panel manufacturers and further distort the market? Good question.

Colorado, with help from the federal government, has done just that.

Narrowly Avoiding a Colorado ‘Solyndra’

In early 2009, then newly appointed U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) touted the prospects of Ascent Solar, a Colorado solar panel manufacturer, and the plans for a new facility to add as many as 200 new jobs for the state’s “New Energy Economy.” Then-Governor Bill Ritter and U.S. Senator Mark Udall, joined their fellow Democrat in offering pleasant platitudes about the “green energy” panacea.

Ritter was effusive with his praise and optimistic about Ascent’s future. “The New Energy Economy is leading Colorado forward and will be one of the keys to bringing us out of this recession. Colorado and Ascent Solar’s success are a model for how America can and must re-tool our entire economy,” declared Ritter. Even the local media couldn’t help but promote such rosy projections.

Fast-forward less than two years. Ascent, perhaps recognizing the fragility of the market, or at the very least, an unprofitable business model, conducted a “market pivot” and a change in business strategy. That switch meant cutting staff—instead of growth of nearly 200 jobs Ascent pared its staff back by half, mostly in production.

All of this occurred while Ascent had reached the ‘due diligence’ phase of the infamous DOE loan guarantee program, with the firm asking for $275 million in taxpayer assistance. But the change in business plans forced Ascent to reconsider its application and the request was quietly pulled—receiving almost no media coverage months after the announcement of DOE consideration.

The decision elicited just a few lines in its 10-Q filing for the first six months of 2011. “On February 23, 2011, the DOE informed us that our submission was selected for due diligence review by the DOE. Timing and funding requirements under the loan guarantee program did not correlate with our revised business plan and consequently, in April 2011, we informed the DOE that we were withdrawing our submission from further consideration under the program,” said Ascent.

Or perhaps it also had something to do with the $85 million write-down that Ascent would incur in altering its business plan, on top of the nearly $90 million in losses it had already accumulated in just five years. Measured against just a little more than $8.6 million in sales over the same time frame, Ascent was nowhere near profitability.

The DOE, however, saw fit to advance the company’s application to the ‘due diligence’ phase. But it would not be American taxpayers on the hook this time, as Asian investors made a $437 million last-minute bailout of the company.

But the consolidation of companies isn’t an indicator of the health of the industry, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. A worldwide price plunge in solar manufacturing has forced weaker (read: not viable) companies to merge or close.

So, without government subsidies there would be almost no supply of solar modules, but without government subsidies there is almost no demand. Artificial markets are doomed to failure. At this juncture, only low-cost Chinese manufacturers may stay afloat with more limited competition, while that country maintains a near-monopoly on the precious, non-green rare earth minerals critical to solar manufacture. Oh boy.

Despite Ascent’s retraction, Colorado is home to DOE recipients, including Goldman-Sachs subsidiary Cogentrix and its $90.6 million loan, and the darling of local Democratic donor Pat Stryker’s Abound Solar, which received a $400 million guarantee.

GE plans to build the country’s biggest solar plant in Colorado, a $300 million project. Their source for inspiration? First Solar. Both make the more harmful Cadmium telluride panels. And who does GE put directly at risk in the fragile solar market? According to the New York Times, it’s Abound Solar.

All while GE itself stands to receive more than $1.5 billion in government loans and grants for a windmill project in Oregon, despite being a company with $170 billion market cap and paying virtually no federal income taxes in 2010.

Considering that almost any DOE or any government subsidy these days is charged to the country’s credit card as debt financing, these government subsidies are actually turning into the dollars that China uses to subsidize its own solar firms. Financing not only your company but also that of your competition is sheer government malfeasance and economic suicide.

Conclusion

To say that both national and state energy policies on renewables – especially solar – are absurd is unfair to the word absurd. The fantasy of “green energy” as policy requires that government mandate, create, and, then, subsidize an economically impractical source of energy. It makes no sense. Just look at Ascent, Abound, Solyndra, First Solar, and, of course, consumers .

The Independence Institute’s environmental policy center estimates that Colorado’s RPS will cost Xcel Energy (our primary electricity supplier) ratepayers more than $100 million in 2011 alone.  That’s just one year in one state.

In its most recent compliance plan, Xcel admits what many “green” energy zealots won’t, that without massive taxpayer subsidies, renewable energy isn’t economically viable.

Europe is also realizing how expensive it is and is slashing subsidies. A recent report predicts electricity prices will go up 100 percent by 2050.

At least one elected official in the U.S. has come to his senses. Maine Governor Paul LePage recently stated that his state must get rid of its job-killing 40 percent RPS because it raises energy costs putting the state at an economic disadvantage.

It is time for more common sense such as Gov. LePage demonstrated. Government must stop enabling the fantasies of green energy zealots with renewable energy mandates and massive taxpayer subsidies for failed companies and their science projects.

Amy Oliver Cooke is the founder of Mothers Against Debt (www. Mothersagainstdebt.com). She is also the director of the Colorado Transparency Project for the Independence Institute and writes on energy policy.  She can be reached at amy@i2i.org. Michael Sandoval is the Managing Editor of People’s Press Collective and a former political reporter for National Review Online.

Too much supply means dark days for solar panel manufacturers

November 9, 2011 by Amy · Comments Off
Filed under: Archive, New Energy Economy 

Another solar panel manufacturer is laying off employees because current global supply of solar panels far exceeds demand. Energy Conversion Devices (ECD) is temporarily suspending production of “Uni-Solar,” a thin filmed solar laminate, and furloughing 140 workers according to a report in the Detroit News.

The two Uni-Solar production plants are located in a “tax-free industrial park north of downtown” Detroit and “lost $70.8 million during its last fiscal year that ended June 30, including $31.5 million in its fourth quarter.” Earlier this year, EDC let go nearly 300 employees.

As of this morning, ECD’s stock price had plummeted to .41 cents per share. It’s 52 week high was $5.80.

A local news outlet, WOOD-TV, had the money quote:  ”supply for solar products worldwide is more than double the demand, so there is no need to make more.”

This is bad news for Colorado because taxpayers just threw a bunch of incentives at General Electric to locate a solar panel manufacturing plant in the state. Colorado already has several solar panel manufacturers including Abound Solar, Ascent Solar, and PrimeStar.

While losing a competitor might be good for the remaining manufacturers, an over-saturated market means more dark days on the horizon for solar panel manufacturers and thus for taxpayers.

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