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How Solyndra's Failure Promises A Brighter Future For Solar Power

  First Posted: 10/12/11 05:41 PM ET Updated: 12/12/11 05:12 AM ET

By David Biello
(Click here for original article.)

Entrepreneur is just a fancy French word for a salesman, and a sales pitch isn't necessarily constrained by the laws of physics or economics. These folks don't so much have a business as an argument -- or a business proposition as the cliche goes. Chris Gronet, the founder of Gronet Industries which became Solyndra and, more recently, defunct, was one such entrepreneur who visited the offices of Scientific American in the fall of 2008.

Much as Gronet's business alma mater Applied Materials has learned to perfect technological processes such as thermal processing at high speed, this entrepreneur had learned to perfect his rapid patter -- and to leave nothing out of place, whether the perfectly parted hair that remained undisturbed by the palpable downdraft of the ventilation system or the thank you e-mail sent the day after the meeting. Like most good, green entrepreneurs, he took a dash of optimism about the bright, clean future for solar energy and paired it with a dose of reality about continuing high prices for the purified silicon at the core of a photovoltaic (PV) device.

He also had a slogan -- "the new shape of solar" -- that encapsulated the idea, much as a cylinder of glass encapsulated the thin-film semiconducting material that made Gronet's solar tubes work. The shape even fed into the name -- Solyndra -- as well as promising half the installation cost in one third of the time, enabling "grid parity" (that is, a price competitive with electricity from fossil fuel–fired power plants) at some imminent date for the first time in the history of solar power. In the meantime, with feed-in tariffs in Germany and Spain as high as 44 euro cents per kilowatt-hour, "we do great," Gronet said.

But wait, there's more. On roofs that didn't line up with the sun's path across the sky, the cylindrical nature of the solar module allowed owners to get more power off the roof by capturing diffuse or reflected light. The panels did not require heavy racks that anchored deep in the roof for support but rather lay flat and spaced out to allow wind to flow through them, allowing them to withstand gusts up to 210 kilometers per hour as demonstrated during a test installation in Florida that survived a tropical storm. That also allowed more of the panels to fit on any given roof. "By covering the 30 billion square feet of large, flat roofs in the U.S. alone, Solyndra's new design has the ability to meaningfully impact the world's energy needs," Gronet wrote in that thank-you email. "Conventional flat PV solar panels are not optimized for large commercial rooftops."

German photovoltaic installers such as Munich-based Phoenix Solar AG loved the cylindrical devices, committing $615 million to purchase some of them. "We simply do not need any supporting structures or ballasts or roof penetrations," Phoenix's chief technology officer, Manfred Bachler, explained in 2008. "We see significant cost-savings."

But Solyndra was always a dicey technology proposition: Take a temperamental semiconducting film that must be perfectly applied at high speed and pair it with a shape that is both hard to manufacture and ship. Voila: a cylindrical solar cell that could either be a game-changer or a money-loser. "Some claims do not sound true," said environmental engineer Vasilis Fthenakis, a senior scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory's National Photovoltaics Environmental Research Center, in 2008.

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