Solar power startup will offer lightweight panels for roofs that can't handle traditional load. But SoloPower is tapping the same federal subsidy program that failed solar power startup Solyndra did.
A tiny solar company named SoloPower will flip the switch on production at a U.S. factory Thursday, a major step toward allowing it to tap a $197 million government loan guarantee awarded under the same controversial program that supported failed panel maker Solyndra.
SoloPower has initiated a strategy to differentiate it from struggling commodity players in the solar panel industry. Still, there are several similarities between SoloPower and Solyndra - which became a lightning rod in the U.S. Presidential campaign this year after taking in more than $500 million in government loans and then filing for bankruptcy.
Like Solyndra, SoloPower is a Silicon Valley start-up and uses the same non-traditional raw material in its solar panels. And, like its now-defunct peer, SoloPower is one of just four U.S. panel manufacturers to clinch loan guarantees under the Department of Energy's $35 billion program to support emerging clean energy technologies. The DOE payments to SoloPower will come on top of the $56.5 million SoloPower has collected in loans, tax credits and incentives from the state of Oregon and the city of Portland, where its first factory will be located.
And, perhaps most importantly, SoloPower is entering the market at a time of cutthroat competition from cheaper solar products made in China.
Though global demand for photovoltaic solar installations is expected to grow about 8 percent this year, rapid expansion of panel manufacturing in Asia in recent years - combined with a pullback in government incentives in key European markets - has left a glut of solar panels in the market, sending prices down 30 percent this year alone.
Companies that make those panels are now struggling to survive. Even the world's largest solar panel maker, China's Suntech Power Holdings Inc, warned on Friday that it may be delisted by the New York Stock Exchange because its share price, which reached $90 in 2008, is now less than $1. Debt-heavy Suntech has also been hurt since it said in July that its partner in a solar development fund might have defrauded it with a bogus collateral pledge of hundreds of millions of German bonds.
These struggles have heaped political pressure on the sector. Republicans, intent on taking back the White House in November's election, are using Solyndra and other U.S. Department of Energy loan failures to brand the Obama administration's green incentives a waste of public money and fountain of cronyism. Solyndra, for instance, was backed by George Kaiser, a major fundraiser for Obama.
As the failures accumulate, Obama is under pressure to show better results for the program.
Earlier this month, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed a "No More Solyndras" bill that would phase out the program for energy loans. It is highly unlikely to be taken up by the U.S. Senate or signed by Obama.
SoloPower says the comparisons to Solyndra are unwarranted.
The San Jose, California company's lightweight, flexible solar panels have a unique advantage, Chief Executive Tim Harris said in an interview. They are pointed squarely at commercial and industrial rooftops that can't support traditional panels, according to Harris, who said half of the buildings in the world can't bear the weight of heavy, rigid panels made with silicon. This includes many of the buildings that house warehouses and big box retailers, Harris said. In addition, he said SoloPower panels are commanding a price premium in a market that has become increasingly commoditized.
"We have way more demand than we have capacity at a very substantial premium price," Harris said in an interview. He declined to specify the premium SoloPower is able to charge, but said his company's product is best suited for markets such as Japan, Italy and Korea, which have high electricity prices and favorable incentives for rooftop systems.
The company has been able to raise more than $200 million in venture funding from investors including Crosslink Capital, Hudson Clean Energy Partners, Convexa Capital Ventures and Firsthand Capital Management.
"Before one dollar of the DOE loan is relied upon it will be demonstrable that this is a company that absolutely can manufacture a product that there will be verifiable demand for," said John Cavalier, a managing partner with Hudson Clean Energy Partners, which invested in SoloPower. "I don't think anyone will question the wisdom of making a loan of this nature to this company."
But some in the industry are skeptical of SoloPower's ability to succeed without having to lower its prices to compete with cheaper products from Asia.
"They are flexible and lightweight. Is anyone willing to pay a price premium for that? I would lean toward saying no," said Matt Feinstein, a solar industry analyst with Lux Research, a research and advisory firm that specializes in emerging technologies. "They have to compete head-to-head with the Chinese."