The Real Reason the Obama Administration Backed Solyndra

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The Obama administration had set a goal, for the public good, of cutting solar costs to $1 a watt installed by 2016.

The reason that the Obama Department of Energy invested $535 million in backing some of the private VC loans (which totaled $1 billion)  to Solyndra was that the company had a way to bring down the cost of solar.

The unique solar panel they made was key to this effort. Note that the Solyndra roof (pictured) is quite different from the typical solar roof. That difference is key. Solyndra wasn’t just another solar panel manufacturer, making just another thing that could be more cheaply made in China.

The corporate media presents the Solyndra bankruptcy as if there was no real differentiation between Solyndra and the typical solar panel manufacturer, making it easy for Republicans to use them to trumpet unfounded accusations of cronyism, but you should understand that the Solyndra panel represented a breakthrough technology.

In their white paper A Grand Challenge for Electricity From Solar, on how to get solar down to $1 a watt by 2016, the DOE sets out their goals, and noted that installation costs represented about half the cost of solar.

“Two approaches will be pursued to achieve the dramatic cost reductions required:

(a) installing arrays in fields on lightweight frames with equipment that has the sophistication of agricultural combines capable of covering hundreds of acres a day, and

(b) finding ways of building PV arrays into building components such as roofing so that the incremental installation cost could be very low. Arrays that follow the sun are somewhat more expensive than installations that don’t move but can produce more electricity per year per watt of installed PV and can produce more energy late in the day when many utilities need most power.

Tracking is usually also needed for units that concentrate sunlight on high efficiency cells. Concentrating systems add to costs but can reduce the area and cost of the photovoltaic devices.”

Solyndra invented a completely unique solar panel, using (then cheaper than traditional) thin film wrapped entirely around inside light weight cylindrical tubes that could make energy from light coming from any direction.

Arranged in cot-like pop-together arrays, they were so light they could practically be popped together by four year olds. Their unique technology would really speed up installation time, cutting installation costs – which are about 40% of the cost of solar.

Solyndra made arrays that followed the sun. Normally arrays that follow the sun must be moved on trackers, adding to their expense. Solynndra made solar that followed the sun passively because they were cylindrical and could make energy from light coming from any direction. Because the thinfilm in the cylinders could pick up light from any direction. Solyndra panels did not need heavy expensive trackers to follow the sun.

If solar were cheap, we could be energy independent and avoid climate change. Public investment in promising manufacturing in the US could make solar cheap, and of course create jobs doing so. This should be obvious, but it is not being written. Instead, some ridiculous political motive is assigned to the Obama administration for getting involved.

Susan Kraemer


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