Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Martin LaMonica

A View from Martin LaMonica

Another Thin-Film Solar Casualty?

Niche provider SoloPower, which received state aid, is seeking an investor to keep operating.

  • April 26, 2013

Need a reminder of how brutal the solar provider industry is? Consider the recent history of SoloPower. 

SoloPower’s chief technology officer, Mustafa Pinarbasi, shows off the company’s flexible solar technology.

The San Jose, Calif.-based company this week said it is scaling back operation at its Portland, Oregon factory and is seeking a “strategic partner” to invest in the company. CEO Rob Campbell told me that the company will require more capital to get SoloPower’s factory to operate at full steam. “As with any new technology, it’s taken a little longer than we had planned to get operational,” Campbell says. “We had to scale back for the moment until we secure investment support.”

The company received a package of state aid to open the facility to turn out flexible solar collectors design for commercial rooftops. SoloPower was also awarded a $197 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy but it has yet to tap those funds. Because it uses similar technology and received a loan guarantee, SoloPower has drawn comparisons to infamous producer Solyndra. (See, A Startup That Isn’t Afraid of Solyndra’s Ghost.)

In a notice to Oregon state officials, the company’s chief legal officer JulianBiggs says that a “significant downturn in business and the need for a major reorganization” has led the company to lay off 29 employees and reduce its operations in Portland, according to The Oregonian. The company reportedly has laid off 65 employees from its San Jose, California headquarters, too. 

In February, the company said that it began shipments to customers from its facility, which was commissioned last September. But scaling back in an environment where dozens of solar companies have gone out of business is not a good sign for any small provider seeking to crack into the solar market. Another thin-film solar company, Nanosolar, had to lay off employees and seek additional capital, while Miasole was bought by a Chinese energy company a great loss to investors.

SoloPower makes a solar collector with CIGS material that’s designed for quick and easy installation. Rather than use mounting racks, installers can roll out flexible strips and adhere them to roofs. It’s particular well suited for tight spaces or roofs that can’t support the full weight of traditional panels and racks.

“We have more demand than we have capacity for the next couple of quarters,” former CEO Tim Harris said when the 100-megawatt factory in Oregon was commissioned last year. The company projected that it would scale up to 400 megawatts of yearly production and create 450 jobs.

But even if it had some technical advantages, SoloPower’s product ultimately competes with commodity silicon-based solar panels, which the market is flooded with. Many analysts have been skeptical that SoloPower can be competitive even in the niche market it’s targeting and raised questions over how competitive it can be on cost.

Beyond technical advantages, smaller solar companies also need access to capital for manufacturing and sales. The company has already raised some $200 million from private investors and needs more, an indication of the amount of money needed produce at commercial scale. And as many other energy startups have learned, another requirement for competing globally is flawless business execution.

Couldn't get to Cambridge? We brought EmTech MIT to you!

Watch session videos here
More from Sustainable Energy

Can we sustainably provide food, water, and energy to a growing population during a climate crisis?

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    Print + Digital Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    Technology Review PDF magazine archive, including articles, images, and covers dating back to 1899

    10% Discount to MIT Technology Review events and MIT Press

    Ad-free website experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning print magazine, unlimited online access plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    Print Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

  • Insider Online Only {! insider.prices.online !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Unlimited online access including articles and video, plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.