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Archive → September, 2011

The Long Tail of Solyndra

The Solyndra bankruptcy debacle may haunt U.S. support for renewable energy for a long time. It’s been four weeks since news broke that the CIGS-in-a-tube operation would shut its doors, and the debate and recriminations seem to be growing louder with each passing day.

Congress and the press are asking some probing questions. Was the company and its technology properly vetted by the Department of Energy? Was political or other pressure applied to the process to make it go faster? More broadly, some are asking if the administration’s plans for clean energy are just a waste of money.

C&EN’s Jeff Johnson reported on these questions from a Sept. 14 Congressional hearing about Solyndra. He points out that the Solyndra loan – issued back in 2009 – was the first loan to come out of a program created by Congress during the Bush administration. While Congress looks in to the particulars about the Solyndra application, it would be difficult to argue that the loan program itself was too speedily implemented.

The New York Times reported from a House subcommittee meeting on Sept. 23 that Solyndra officials took the Fifth Amendment to avoid having to answer questions about the company. Members on both sides of the aisle were displeased with the firm, but Republicans were especially harsh, the paper reports.

Representative Michael C. Burgess, Republican of Texas, linked the Solyndra bankruptcy to current negotiations about the Federal Budget. The House had voted to cut loan guarantees for electric cars. As quoted in the Times, he explained:

“Yes, we took that money back,” Mr. Burgess said. “If the D.O.E. is going to be chumps, the very least we can do is corral what they’re doing.”

Ouch.

Dow Chemical, DOE aim for Solar at $2 a watt

Dow Chemical, maker of the Solar Shingle, has been awarded a $12.8 million, 3-year grant from the Department of Energy to fund building integrated solar products program. The aim of the funding is clear in the name of the DOE program “Extreme Balance-of-System Hardware Cost Reductions.” [note: Maybe not quite clear enough - I added the hyphens to help you figure out what Extreme is supposed to refer to.]

Dow's Solar Shingles. Credit: Dow Chemical

In short, DOE wants to bring down the installed cost of solar power to $2 per watt – without subsidies. Currently, it’s the upfront cost of installing solar panels that puts the breaks on the amount of installed solar in the U.S. Most solar systems are designed to last upwards of 20 years (most experts say you can count on your panels to work for 25 years), but the costs can mean the payback period can stretch out to more than 15 years, depending on where you live.  

Sharp offers an awesome and slightly addicting solar cost/payback/savings calculator on its website. Drop whatever you are doing right now (it’s the Friday before Labor Day, people, no one expects you to do real work anyway) and go here: http://sharpusa.cleanpowerestimator.com/sharpusa.htm

All you need to do is put in your zip code and the amount of your electricity bill and then you can spend a while fiddling with the variables. The default cost per watt of solar power is $7 per watt (or $7,000 per kW as shown in the calculator).

With my particulars, a 3,000 kW system would trim my power bill enough to pay for itself in a bit over 16 years. I’d only pay about 1/3rd the full cost of the system (or over $7,000) due to state and Federal tax rebates. So that shows two things: government subsidies are required to make solar even sort of make sense at current prices, and that $2 per watt sounds like a reasonable price target. If you lived in Arizona your calculation would likely be different.

Give it a try!