The mysterious rise and sudden, calamitous collapse of OptiSolar was one of the first great cautionary tales in solar.
The company -- born out of a research paper written at Hewlett-Packard in the early 2000s -- aspired to become a gigantic, vertically integrated solar powerhouse. It wanted to build "solar city" complexes with factories that could churn out 2 to 3 gigawatts of amorphous silicon solar panels each year. Rather than go with traditional frames, the paper suggested utilizing aluminum frames from regular windows and backing the panels with inexpensive silicon or plastic.
Modules would cost 0.60 cents to 0.52 cents per watt to make, far less than prices today and close to the goal set by the DOE's SunShot program for modules in 2017. Fully installed, solar power would cost $1.00 to 0.88 cents a watt, the paper said. Again, that would be better than or equal to the $1 a watt, fully installed goal that SunShot is aiming to achieve seven years from now.
These factories could be conveniently located to power plants, which OptiSolar would own and manage.
HP passed on the project, but Canadian resource and oil investors picked it up, investing more than $322 million into the effort. By 2007, it had small production facilities in the Bay Area, but the big news was still to come. In 2007, the company won contracts to install over 200 megawatts in Ontario and a 550-megawatt solar farm near San Luis Obispo for PG&E over several competitive bidders. Toward the end of 2008, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger showed up for a factory opening that 60 Minutes covered.
And the company was largely mysterious. It granted few interviews. Few in the solar industry knew them, and the fact that that PG&E selected an untested startup that hadn't even completed its commercial-scale module factory had many scratching their head.
"Their greatest asset is their land use attorney," one executive told me. (Disclosure: I looked up who the general counsel might be and it was someone I met in seventh grade.)
The end came quick. Although the company had raised over $322 million, it was still trying to raise $200 million more at the end of 2008 during the credit crunch. Mass layoffs began in January. By April, First Solar bought both utility projects for $400 million and swapped out OptiSolar's proposed amorphous panels for its cadmium telluride ones. Months later, after several companies checked out the equipment, a Canadian company called Allora Minerals said it would buy the equipment and other assets and change its name to EPOD Solar. The trail went dead after that.
Now, some of the founders and former executives have formed a company called NovaSolar Technologies, according to Lindsay Riddell at the San Francisco Business Times.
NovaSolar was formed in the middle of 2009, according to the company website. NovaSolar either replaced Allora/EPOD or is that same company, because NovaSolar bought the intellectual property and the old equipment that Allora said it was going to buy, according to the website.
Marvin Keshner, who wrote the HP paper, is the Chief Scientist, while Darien Spencer reprises his role as COO at the new company. Erik Vaaler, an OptiSolar founder, is back as head of engineering.
The company, based in Hong Kong, is building a factory in Yangzhou, China that it says will be operational in the fourth quarter. The details are vague, but the company's website claims it has 500 megawatts' worth of projects in the pipeline. It will specialize in multi-junction solar cells, although it says it also bought equipment for single-junction amorphous cells from OptiSolar. It may also use panels from other vendors on certain projects.
Can they make it? The ideas contained in that original paper were compelling, but a lot has happened since 2004. Back then, silicon was in short supply and leaders on both sides of the political divide talked about how renewables could help the economy, national security and the environment. Rick Perry the Cable Guy was not presidential material.
Investors will be skittish. Since 2008, crystalline silicon prices have plummeted. It's even difficult for solar thermal to be competitive. Cadmium telluride seems to dominate the sliver of the market that is thin film and several copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) vendors can tout impressive efficiency numbers that top what amorphous can do. In many minds, amorphous is yesterday's news.
So the odds are stacked against them.
But we do love the irony that we are writing about this a day after HP said it will sell off its PC unit.