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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.

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