Solar Industry Prospects Look Dim
Northern Colorado has seen plenty of headlines about trouble in the solar industry this year. KUNC's Emily Boyer discussed the state of solar with Steve Lynn a reporter for the Northern Colorado Business Report.
Boyer: The most recent blow to the solar industry came just last month when Loveland-based Abound Solar filed for federal bankruptcy protection and suspended all operations at its northern Colorado facility.
Lynn: Yes, the industry has really been suffering here and, really globally. Abound was also the third clean energy company to file for bankruptcy after receiving a US Department of Energy loan through the 2009 Recovery Act.
Boyer: Abound had drawn down nearly $70 million of their $400 million loan guarantee. How much are taxpayers likely to now lose?
Lynn: The energy department says taxpayers will lose $40 to $60 million, Emily, so it’s good bit of money.
Boyer: So how are lawmakers reacting to this news?
Lynn: Well, this loan guarantee program originally had bipartisan support. Congress is now investigating the program, and whether loan guarantees continue to receive support is a big question.
I recently spoke with Republican Congressman Cory Gardner, who says he thinks government support of this industry may not be the way to go. He would actually like to see the private sector provide more financial support for research and development of solar.
Boyer: Abound’s technology was originally developed at Colorado State University. Is the bankruptcy going to be changing how the university approaches solar?
Lynn: No, CSU is going to continue to research cadmium-telluride thin films that Abound had used. Researchers hope to develop a more efficient and more competitive solar panel, but they’re a long way off.
Boyer: Abound Solar aside, how are other aspects of the solar industry doing in Northern Colorado?
Lynn: Well, I spoke with one Fort Collins solar installer who says he completed four installations daily in the early 1980s, when solar hit its zenith. To compare, he’s done only four solar installations this year.
Boyer: Wow that’s quite a drop in business. What was it about the 1980's that made the solar industry so successful?
Lynn: There were dozens of solar companies in Northern Colorado at a time when the government offered homeowners a tax credit on solar systems. However, many of those same businesses closed when the tax credit ended.
Boyer: But the solar industry isn’t just have problems in Colorado?
Lynn: No, solar is in trouble pretty much everywhere. The industry is in the midst of one of its worst downturns. That has come from a decline in wholesale prices and intense competition from overseas.
Chinese companies, in particular, have been able to sell their solar panels at prices well below the cost of production. U.S. manufacturers have accused the Chinese government of improperly subsidizing these products made by Chinese companies. And, Congress has gone so far as to impose substantial tariffs on Chinese firms, but that hasn’t really helped American companies.
Steve Lynn is a reporter with the Northern Colorado Business Report.