Steven Chu, the new head of the Dept. of Energy made a couple of big statements with the $535 million loan guarantee for Freemont-based solar company Solyndra.
First off, the loan makes it clear to the entire cleantech world that Obama and Chu are not messing around. A half a billion dollars is a pretty strong indicator that they are looking to massively scale renewable energy technologies in the U.S. with a whole lot of cash.
Secondly, they are making clear just what types of companies they want to fund -- companies that are already in production, companies that create lots of jobs (Solyndra will create 3,000 temporary and 1,000 permanent new jobs plus it will train an army of installers to rapidly implement the technology) and companies that will radically speed up the implementation of renewables.
Solyndra achieves all of these qualifications. As they were completing their 300,000 square foot plant last fall, just exactly what they were doing in there was kept top secret. For good reason. Solyndra's tubular solar cells changed business as usual for the solar industry.
Instead of crystalline silica-based solar cells (the big blue flat panels you are used to seeing) Solyndra uses both thin-film and CIGS (copper indium gallium diselenide) which achieves the highest efficiency in solar cells (about 20%) for significantly less unit costs than a typical solar PV cells.
The panels, which are made up of a series of solar tubes, lay flat unlike solar PV panels which have to be angled to receive the most light. The tube shape captures direct, ambient and reflected light. This means more panels per roof and a major reduction in installation costs -- no special mounts to resist wind loads.
An added benefit of the tubes is that the cells are naturally air cooled. One of the problems with solar cells is that they become less efficient at higher temperatures (when all the sun is available). Air can flow around the tubes, increasing efficiency and life.
Solyndra estimates that in the U.S. there are 30 billion square feet of rooftops available for solar which could produce more than 150 gigawatts of energy (the projected total energy demand in the US is about 800 gigawatts).
The loan is a pretty safe bet. Solyndra has already had about $1.5 billion in orders placed, and that number is expected to rise significantly once the company expands its production capability.
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