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SoloPower, Gevo: Can a capital-light strategy save cleantech?

I wish I could be in Portland, Oregon today to watch SoloPower start up its first production line of thin film CIGS solar panels. The company says it can manufacture in a continuous process to make its solar material in strips as long as one mile.

The company asserts that its thin, flexible modules are a good fit for building-integrated solar, especially in locations where heavier, traditional glass panels cannot be installed such as on warehouse roofs. The modules are certified to an efficiency rate of 9.7 to 12.7%.

But it’s not so much the technology itself that is interesting, but rather SoloPower’s business model and whether it can succeed in selling what it admits is a premium-priced product while the traditional silicon modules continue to drop in price, taking down many efficient producers with them.

SoloPower is already having to bear up under scrutiny because it will be able to tap into almost $200 million in DOE loan guarantees, under the same program that was behind the Solyndra kerfuffle. NPR did a nice job this morning interrogating SoloPower CEO Tim Harris. Read or listen to the short piece here.

NPR rightly points out that Solyndra was backed by $1 billion in private funding and accessed half a billion dollars in its own DOE loan before going bankrupt. But SoloPower doesn’t have a billion bucks to lose, and perhaps that is a good thing.

Instead of comparing SoloPower to Solyndra I’d like to compare it to Gevo, a maker of biobased isobutyl alcohol (what it calls isobutanol). Both firms are pursuing a capital-light strategy.

SoloPower’s first production line will have a small eventual annual capacity of 100 MW. So far, it has spent only its own investors’ dollars. Gevo, a now public company, is spending somewhere around 25% to one-third the cost of a new fermentation plant by converting existing corn ethanol plants.

When a company that has a technology without a track record wants to build its first large plant, it faces financing risk on top of technology risk. Range Fuels built a shiny new plant in Georgia to make ethanol from wood chips. But since the technology did not work upon start-up, Range could not pay its monthly loan overhead, and the factory was repossessed by its financing bank and sold at auction (Range also had a DOE loan guarantee).

Early this week, Gevo told investors that it had stopped making isobutyl alcohol at its facility in Luverne, Minnesota. Instead, it turned the switch back to ethanol. Gevo’s plan to convert an ethanol plant in Redmond, South Dakota is on hold. The company said though it successfully made isobutyl alcohol in Luverne, to reach its target run rate would require more work. Meanwhile, both locations can still produce ethanol.

Though Gevo’s investors weren’t happy with this news, Gevo has given itself plenty of time to fix its problems, saying it would reach its target run rate in 2013 (it could take a year and still make this deadline).

Reducing a company’s financing risk doesn’t do much to reduce its technology risk – or in SoloPower’s case, its market risk – in either the short or long term. But it may help a company last beyond just the short term. Given the pitfalls of technology scale-up, that could make all the difference.

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