The Independence Institute’s Todd Shepherd, along with this blog, have spent two years covering, and ultimately exposing, what is now the Abound Solar scandal. Understandably, much of the focus is now on Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck’s criminal investigation as well as a Congressional Oversight Committee inquiry into the bankrupt solar panel manufacturer.
Recently released emails on Complete Colorado indicate that, despite statements to the contrary, the White House politicized the Department of Energy (DOE) loan guarantee process for politically well-connected Abound.
But something else within those emails caught my attention reminding me of free market economist and Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman’s famous quote, “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” In other words, even things that appear to be free have an associated cost.
This basic economic concept is lost on Colorado State Representative Max Tyler’s (D-Lakewood) who in a March 23, 2010, press release bragged about a government-dictated increase in Colorado’s renewable energy mandate:
With HB 1001 we will manufacture and install panels and turbines all over Colorado to capture free energy….The sun will always shine for free, the winds will always blow for free, and our energy production will be cleaner. Renewable energy, green jobs, and a cleaner future — what’s not to like?
At roughly the same time that Tyler publicly fantasized about “free energy,” a credit advisor for the Department of Energy (DOE) loan guarantee program James McCrea was concerned about “major issues” with Abound Solar’s marketability. In an email dated April 1, 2010, just seven days after Tyler’s press release, McCrea explained:
Another issue is the very limited supply of telluride, its potential price trajectory and other demands for it. Related to this is a question of the viability of the Abound panels as compared to other panels and whether there is sufficient benefit to allow the panels to be profitable if Te [telluride] prices really increase. If the price really rises will there be alternative uses that can afford it basically turning it into a non available input for Abound?
I don’t believe we have ever worked with an input material that is so limited. We need to think that through carefully.
Before going bankrupt this summer, Abound produced cadmium telluride (CdTe) thin-filmed photovoltaic solar panels. Cadmium and tellurium, used in the manufacturing of Abound’s panels, are two of the world’s 17 “rare earth elements” that are needed for everything from smart phones to solar panels to high tech weapons systems. My former colleague Michael Sandoval, now an investigative reporter with the Heritage Foundation, and I have written several columns on general issues with rare earth elements.
This email highlights the problem specific to Abound, and McCrea was right to be concerned. According to the December 2011 DOE Critical Materials Strategy the price of tellurium has been going up since 2007:
The price dropped in 2006, but in 2007 resumed its upward trend owing to increased production of cadmium telluride (CdTe) solar cells.
Furthermore, China controls the vast majority of rare earth elements. In August 2012, the Chinese announced an ambitious plan to increase its stranglehold on the world’s available supply of rare earths. According to China Daily the country:
launched a physical trading platform for rare earth metals as part of its efforts to regulate the sector and strengthen its pricing power for the resources.
As the world’s largest producer of rare earth metals, China now supplies more than 90 percent of the global demand for rare earth metals, although its reserves account for just 23 percent of the world’s total.
The article reiterated what Michael and I have said on numerous occasions, mining rare earths comes with a significant environmental cost that green zealots like Tyler completely ignore when claiming solar energy is free and clean:
Mining the metals greatly damages the environment. In recent years, China has come down heavily on illegal mining and smuggling, cut export quotas and imposed production caps, stricter emissions standards and higher resource taxes to control environmental damage and stave off resource depletion.
However, these measures have irked rare earth importers, who complained about rising prices and strained supplies.
But China did exactly what it said it would do in 2009. It drove up prices with reduced output as global demand increased.
China’s rare earth output fell 36 percent year on year to 40,000 tonnes in the first half of the year. Prices of major rare earth products in July remained twice as high as prices at the beginning of 2011, although down from the beginning of the year.
In July 2009, about a year before President Barack Obama announced a $400 million loan guarantee for Abound, Jack Lifton, an expert on sources and uses of rare minerals, wrote a lengthy article for Resource Investor about the availability of tellurium for First Solar, a global leader in cadmium telluride solar panel manufacturering. Lifton’s conclusion should have served as a prophetic warning for Abound and any hope of profitability:
A company such as First Solar, which is critically dependent on a secure supply of tellurium to exist and on an unsustainable growth in the supply to it of tellurium for it to grow and achieve competitive pricing is a big risk for short-term investors. The maximum supply and production levels attainable of tellurium are quantifiable even if the actual production figures are murky, and they do not bode well for the future of First Solar if it must make profits to survive.
The next time you hear a politician like Max Tyler tout the benefits of “free” and “clean” energy, remember Abound Solar because there is no such thing as a free lunch.
More solar panels and wind turbines are not solutions to the eco-left’s obsession with global carbon emission according to a new book from University of California – Berkeley visiting scholar Ozzie Zehner titled Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism.
‘Alternative energy is not a free ride, just a different ride…and there’s no reason to believe it will offset fossil fuel use in a society that has high levels of consumption and is growing exponentially.’
Put another way, renewable energy only makes sense if undertaken in concert with other, more fundamental changes in the way we deploy and make use of energy in our everyday lives. At the moment, we’re really paying attention to the technology end of things, Zehner argues, and without a holistic approach, these innovations get us nowhere.
Zehner wants people to consume less. But there is more to his book than conservation. He argues that some green technology is actually worse than traditional fossil fuels that simply dump CO2 into the atmosphere
Green Illusions explains how the solar industry has grown to become one of the leading emitters of hexafluoroethane (C2F6), nitrogen trifluoride (NF3), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6). These three potent greenhouse gases, used by solar cell fabricators, make carbon dioxide (CO2) seem harmless.
The main point is that “green energy” comes with a price, both economical and environmental. Go into it with your eyes wide open.
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.
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.