Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Abound Solar - Colorado Company Goes Belly-Up

Abound Solar, a Colorado manufacturer of thin-film solar cells went under this week. Pressure from inexpensive Chinese products combined with poor management drove a promising company out of business in just two years.

The company spun-off research done at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO. Before re-branding itself as "Abound Solar" the company was called AVA Solar. AVA or air-vacuum-air, representing the unique assembly method used. 

The thin-film cadmium-tellurium photovoltaic cells produced by the company were the brainchild of Dr. W.S. Sampath. I wrote optimistically about Dr. Sampath and the company when they first announced their business plan. See this post for a more extensive background of the company.

I had hoped Abound...
would usher in a new era. An era of renewable energy made in America. But that hope is toppling as fast as these solar cell companies are going bust. After the failure of the California based Solyndra last fall the DOE has had its eyes on other manufacturers who also had secured government loans. Abound was promised $400 million in DOE loans two years ago but borrowed only $70 million as of last week. The DOE had wisely cut off its line of credit months ago when the company had its first round of major layoffs. Abound officially filed for bankruptcy on Monday July 1st, 2012 and has closed its doors.

When I lived in Fort Collins I had a housemate that worked in the RD section of Abound Solar. When I heard the news I sent him a message and he confirmed he was being laid off and that he packed up his desk last week. I expressed my sadness.

We all loose.

A few weeks ago Abound representatives were part of congressional meetings in which it was agreed the US would raise tariffs on imported thin film solar cells. Cheaper panels produced in China in addition to plummeting prices of the more efficient silicon solar cells have been fingered as culprits in Abound's demise.  The way I see it we, the American people loose terribly in this whole situation. We can't buy solar cells made in the US as all the manufacturers are closing their doors and we can't buy cheap Chinese solar cells because the tariffs will now make them unaffordable.  The oil, gas, and coal companies are smiling though as they are our only real option for energy in the near term.

This whole thing just stinks!

What can we learn from this? How about that handing businesses cheap government loans and letting the "free market" do its job DOES NOT WORK WITH ENERGY. Why doesn't it work? Because we are too deeply in bed with oil gas and coal.  We are quite literally railroaded by business as usual.  

What are some solutions? 

Congress has not directly promoted a shift of US energy consumption from fossil fuels to renewables. I think we should demand congress change its strategy.  If the government took all the loans they were going to give to these companies and instead subsidize individual citizens who decide they want to install solar panels on their roofs and wind turbines on their property, we would be a lot further along in the shift. Regarding energy, the US government has been bossed around by business instead of people for too long.  In the wake of Abound Solar going belly-up we the people need to demand renewable energy subsidies based on flesh and blood people NOT COMPANIES. 

A tale of two companies.

It was the best of times it was the worst of times. While living in Fort Collins two of the biggest up-and-coming businesses in town were Abound Solar and Otter Box. Otter Box designs high end iPhone covers. These covers can sell for as much as $50. A handsome mark-up on a few pieces of plastic and rubber assembled in China. 

While Abound has failed, Otter Box has flourished wildly. How can this be? It seems a fitting metaphor for the situation. The company that does well in the United States in 2012 is the one selling the shell, the hollow covering on the real-technology. Meanwhile a fledgling company with the best of intentions, the company actually doing something useful is crushed by a totally fucked global economy floating on a finite bubble of oil. It makes me sick! 




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