Would you like a 5-kilowatt Solyndra PV system up on your rooftop for Christmas? How about a half-megawatt Solyndra power plant in Germany? How would you like to sit and open presents at a mahogany conference table where some of the questionable decisions of Solyndra executives and engineers were made? These, and many other items, were made available at the second Solyndra auction this week.
The preview was on December 12 at the Solyndra site on Kato Rd. in Fremont, CA. This allowed interested parties to create a wish list of numbered “lots” that they’d be bidding on the following day. Unlike the first auction in November, this one was online only. I took the opportunity to preview the items and to talk to some of the people who traveled to this once-promising PV manufacturer. One of the first lots I saw was 15 pallets of assorted copper wiring and closed boxes, with people sorting through boxes to estimate how many pounds of precious metals were within.
In a specially secured inner sanctum, we were watched over while we we inspected many of the small, high-value items. One that caught my eye was a stress tester for glass made by GlasStress Ltd. in Estonia. (I’m a scientist and anything that measures something is sure to get my attention.) In an email, GlasStress wrote that the model AP-07 in question was purchased for approximately $36,000. The online bidding, which I participated in, started the item at $30 and I purchased it at $300. Clearly, there were not many scientists and materials science geeks looking at the Solyndra cache. Here in the U.S., such an instrument is already used by a well-known bottler of soft drinks to check for cracks and imperfections during bottle production. This item is listed in the Heritage Global Partners auction catalog as “GuessStress” instead of Glass Stress.
The stress that Solyndra was under earlier this year seemed to go unchecked by both U.S. federal officials, who had granted the more than $535 million loan guarantee, as well as private investors and members of the Solyndra Board of Directors. I found evidence that the cracks in the business were in plain view almost a year ago. Like Christmas past, they are just under the surface but appear unexpectedly when all else is dark.
I saw the evidence during the first (live) auction that took place in November. It was still there on December 12 and yet everyone walked by without noticing its significance. There were crates and pallets, cubes about two meters on a side, stamped with part number, origin and production date of their contents. The one-meter, uncoated Solyndra cylindrical glass tubes inside the boxes were manufactured by Schott Rohrglas in Germany and represent one of the most critical items in the supply chain for the cylindrical PV panels that were made by Solyndra until the company went bankrupt in September.
Each box contained 2000 tubes on which vacuum deposition machines coated a thin film layer of the CIGS PV semiconductor. This smaller CIGS-coated tube was placed inside a larger, uncoated, glass cover tube, that I saw in neighboring crates and pallets, and the two concentric tubes were sealed at the ends with a metal-to-glass seal much like a fluorescent tube. The room contained an array of 20-by-25 boxes containing 800,000 to 1 million tubes in unopened crates and pallets. They were neatly arranged in rows by month: January 2011, February 2011, March 2011, April 2011 and so on.
Had I walked into this factory in early 2011, I would have undoubtedly asked why the expensive, high purity glass tubes were coming in but not being used. This represents a serious mismatch in the supply chain between finished goods produced, Solyndra solar panels, and the raw materials coming in. One can only guess if anyone on the board asked about this mismatch.
In the main staging area, I was taken by how many boxes of supplies and equipment were new, unused and unopened. Boxed View Sonic 21” Flat Panel Monitors and stacks of Dell laptop computers covered many of the tables.
I met Larry, a professor at a local Bay Area university who was interested in purchasing a small lot of Solyndra panels (2 to 3 kilowatts) for his residence in Oakland. Although, he had no experience with solar panels, the lure of $0.20 to $0.40 per watt was very appealing and we talked about the other components that would be necessary to complete the system (such as an inverter). The going rate for PV modules is $1.00 to $2.50 per watt (depending on the installation size and module type) and Solyndra was trying to sell its modules for around $3 before it collapsed. John, a retired electrical engineer from IBM, had the same idea for his house in Saratoga. He had already purchased Solyndra solar panels, made available at the last auction, and was seeking the pedestal/feet that mount each Solyndra panel to the roof. For a residential system, which had never been part of Solyndra’s business, more of the pedestals/feet are needed. Solyndra’s targeted market for flat roofs for commercial buildings seems to have an alternative that people like John and Larry are going to explore only now.
Both the first and second auction were for so-called “non-core” items, the things that could be sold and not jeopardize the sale of the larger production items that could, in principle, be used to restart or recreate the factory. At the time of the writing of this article, no serious bidders have come forward to bid on the whole manufacturing facility. Auction 3 will feature the core manufacturing items, valued at over $350 million at acquisition cost. The sale will be January 25 and 26, 2012 and, like the first two, will be hosted by Heritage Global Partners.
What can you do if you missed the first two auctions and you are not really in the market for a PV manufacturing facility? Some of the items that I saw during the first auction quickly made their way to online sale sites such as eBay and Craigslist. Many people paid 40 cents per watt for Solyndra panels only to sell them at $1.50 per watt. You could buy Solyndra T-shirts and monogrammed eyeglass cleaning cloths on eBay, and I am sure that many of the items sold today will show up online.
Of course, I don’t think that you could get the robotic arm or the roomful of unused Solyndra glass tubes just yet, but you never know. If you’ve been very good this year, you can always ask Santa.
Greg P. Smestad has served as the Associate Editor, for over 20 years, of the peer-reviewed journal Solar Energy Materials & Solar Cells and is also a consultant to both venture capitalists and the U.S. Department of Energy. He’s the author of a book on the optoelectronics of solar cells. For further details, visit his website.