But everything did not go as planned.

Murphy and a business partner began working with NREL in 2006 to develop a thin-film panel technology that uses a compound called cadmium telluride. They started building PrimeStar Solar with the help of Zweibel, who ended up leaving NREL to join PrimeStar. The small company seemed on track for a major scale-up when General Electric expressed interest, began buying shares, and eventually bought the startup in full in 2011. GE's plan was to build a solar-panel manufacturing plant in Aurora.

PrimeStar was a major success story for NREL — a shining example of how a small company can partner with the national lab to develop cutting-edge technology, reach commercial success, and even give back to Colorado by bringing new manufacturing jobs to the state. But the story of PrimeStar took an unfortunate turn this summer when GE called in its Colorado employees and announced that about seventy of them would be laid off and that the Aurora plant would be put on hold for at least eighteen months. News of layoffs reached PrimeStar employees the same week that Abound Solar, a Loveland-based solar company that had developed a similar technology, announced it would officially file for bankruptcy, affecting 125 employees.

The backdrop to the bad news at both companies is that the United States is struggling to respond to aggressive pricing competition from China. Simply put, there is an international oversupply of manufacturing capacity in the solar industry, making it impossible for smaller companies in the U.S. to stay afloat.

Even so, GE PrimeStar is continuing to invest in a technology that, immediately after the layoffs were announced, Murphy worried wouldn't be commercially viable even eighteen months from now. "I am clearly disappointed that I see PrimeStar...kind of collapsing," he said at the time.

Different materials are used for photovoltaic solar technologies, including crystalline silicon and thin-film technologies; the latter includes cadmium telluride, which is what PrimeStar has been developing. Because of a major oversupply in crystalline silicon, manufacturers of that technology have been forced to innovate and improve the product to stay competitive. And they have, Murphy says, developing much more cost-effective technologies. A consequence of this, however, is that the competitive advantage of cadmium telluride is not as wide as it was in 2006.

For its part, GE says it's sticking with cadmium telluride and is confident that it can improve the efficiencies of those technologies and successfully manufacture solar panels — in an Aurora plant — sometime in the near future. And Murphy says that he recently heard more promising news from GE and is more confident than he was in July that GE PrimeStar may be able to develop the innovations it needs to stay afloat.

The Obama administration sees no reason to be concerned about the solar industry. "Any time you're dealing with an emerging future on energy, you're always going to have successes and you're going to have setbacks," Ken Salazar responds when asked about GE PrimeStar's plant postponement and Abound's bankruptcy. "And President Obama and I remain very confident that we're moving in the right direction."

In a lengthy statement responding to news of Abound's bankruptcy, DOE spokesman Damien LaVera points out that last year, the global market for renewable energy reached a record $260 billion and that America's solar industry now employs 100,000 workers, doubling since 2009. "In such an intense competition and with the price declining 47 percent last year alone, not every company, nor every investment, will be a success," he says. "But America will be stronger and more competitive if we continue to support and build a thriving solar industry here at home."

Investments in innovative companies always carry risks, LaVera notes, but no matter what, "America must continue playing to win in the clean-energy race."

And will NREL's expansion be a win?

Zweibel puts it this way: "If you develop new technology that reaches technical success but is out-competed by a country that is essentially doing a vertical integration of the whole industry...it means that you don't get anywhere. You develop new technology, but you can't commercialize it."

But no matter the challenges, Murphy still considers NREL's work vital. "If we try and grade and rank them [based on] how many wins versus losses we have, we're missing the big picture of what research and development is slated for," Murphy says. "It's about gaining knowledge."

"Energy is a global market, and manufacturing is a global market, too," says the DOE's Baker. "Our job really is to continue to push the bounds of technology that gives us the edge. It's one thing to have inexpensive labor...[but] we're pushing the bounds of technology to allow the United States to really reap the value of that and maybe neutralize a little bit of that."

That's why in recent years, NREL has shifted priorities to focus on commercialization. "The role of NREL is to work with the private sector," Arvizu says. "Most of the things you see us do these days are in conjunction with market players."

As of this past January, NREL had agreements in place with 448 industry partners, 65 educational partners, 28 nonprofits and 15 government entities. The facility also has more "cooperative research and development agreements" — written contracts between a company and a government agency — than any other DOE laboratory.

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23 comments
laurajose2
laurajose2

Cry me a river,  the world changes, get over it.   If you don't like living there any longer,  move. 

idellagarza
idellagarza

I experienced using recs calculator and it was a cool way to learn more about the importance of renewable energy. Companies like them should be supported by us. Let us all admit that we are really having a hard time with the current resources that makes our expenses hurt our pockets.

vinnieu
vinnieu

pixiebabe,

First, I apologize for my earlier lack of empathy toward you, your story and your loss of property to your local governments' exercise of eminent domain. My reaction to the article was largely due to journalistic issues rather than your story. Sadly, our country's beginnings are a result of  "land-grabs" from Native American tribes and continues today supported by  Supreme Court rulings. I strongly support private property ownership rights and deplore seizure of private property through condemnation and EM.  I also strongly support national energy policy that doesn't involve war or polluting our air and water. Unfortunately, as our country's land-space becomes more crowded, these conflicting interests become more commonplace and less palatable.

rwillhite65
rwillhite65

 "I've never heard about anything good coming out of NREL," he says. "I've never heard of any breakthroughs.... I've never heard good PR, and I've lived next door to it all my life.... All I see is they keep taking more and more and building more buildings. The public has a right to know what's going on in there."

 

This person lives within walking distance of NREL, which has a visitor’s center and several open-to-the-public activities every year :-/

vinnieu
vinnieu

No mention in this article of the advancements/contributions toward energy independence in the measurement of public good! How would this person feel if a Wal-Mart was dropped into their neighborhood solely for increased tax revenues. Or drilling for natural gas using fracking?

goldstein
goldstein

Salazar, Obama, Carter, Lamm, Baker, Kroposki:  Statist experts on bribing people with their own money. Residual value in a Federal technology investment is of course never measured in dollars or true innovation for that matter. It is only measured in altruistic intent. They simply buy stuff with your money (jobs, roads, buildings, lab equipment, votes) then measure economic output in terms of how much of your money was spent in your neighborhood. NREL is simply a testament to how well your political leaders and their bureaucrat appointees are extorting you. Those of you touting the virtues of governmental intervention in "clean" technology either work at NREL or can't calculate ROI.

vinnieu
vinnieu

I thought this article would list some of the valuable contributions/advancements NREL has made to renewable energy.  As I  write this, I'm in the early stages of installing solar. This would probably not be possible without the work of NREL!  Lets don't put energy independence on hold cuz somebody doesn't feel secure with NREL's location.  Would they feel better if a coal-fired electrical generation plant landed in their backyard?

patricia.calhoun
patricia.calhoun moderator editortopcommenter

I'd like to publish some of these comments in our print edition, ideally with the author's full name. If you're interested, e-mail me at patricia.calhoun@westword.com

SnarkyBark
SnarkyBark

This article SERIOUSLY underplays the use and abuse of eminent domain.

 

Are people aware that in Kelo v City of New London,  the US Supreme Court rubber stamped the growing trend of governments (from municipal to Federal) to use eminent domain to take property from private individuals to give to other private entities?  So it isn’t just that the govt needs to build a highway and your land is in the middle of it.  If a private entity wants to build a development, and your land is part of the intended site, a govt can use EM to force the sale of your land that will be transferred to another private entity. 

 

Gone are the days when you heard stories about some widow having a skyscraper built around her house b/c she refused to sell to a developer.  Now, the govt will just force you to sell under EM.  That govt entity will receive far more tax revenue, jobs growth, etc from having that development rather than you retaining your property.  And the US Supreme Court has said this is ok. 

 

Don’t believe that the existing statutes (in CO anyway) that purport to limit this type of EM use actually do that.  This has happened over and over again.  The interpretations of “public use” are jokes.  And the CO Supreme Court has gone right along with the USSC.

 

The long and short of the Kelo ruling is that you don’t really own your property.  Any  government entity can come in and force its sale for the most tenuous of reasons.  And consider that Kelo (2005) and a great deal of legislation around the country designed to limit this abuse of EM (not just in CO) was enacted prior to the economic collapse.  You had better believe jurisdictions are more motivated to increase revenue and by any means necessary.

 

All these people around NREL had better prepare for the possibility of losing their land altogether if NREL has further expansion in the future.

traven37
traven37

Honestly, I question Westword's motives with this article.  Especially which quotes they wanted in this article versus those they didn't.  What do I mean?  They specifically tried to grab the hearts of people by getting the "HEARTWRENCHING" stories of the families who lost a little land (which has been vacant / full of weeds and unused for the past 2 years)  And saying "I've never seen or heard anything good coming from NREL..." That is a joke right?

 

How about NREL's 27 Research & Development top 100 awards over the past 12 years?  Where is that mentioned?  Do you wonder why your air coniditioning or heating has gotten better in the last 2 decades?  What about water energy, electric and hybrid vehicles, eletric and hybrid commercial trucks, solar, biofuels (NREL developed one of the catalysts that made E-85 possible on an economic scale), etc. You should know that NREL has something to do with that... What about those things?  Where is NREL mentioned for the real good it has been doing by producing clean energy?  If you expand a laboratory by 1500 employees in the matter of a decade - you HAVE to expand. New buildings need to be established to house those employees, and that serves as a great opportunity to show the world that you can build green!

 

One point of entry and exit is not acceptable for an organization of that nature - in fact it isn't safe.  2,000+ employees is the same as a multinational corporation!  You have to provide proper access and exits for those employees. 

 

Think of it like this: If there was a major accident that blocked the entry/exit onto the campus and firetrucks and ambulances couldn't get to another accident further in the campus wouldn't that be a problem?  -Yes... it'd be a problem.  Maybe that is why city planners work hard to make it possible for multiple ways to detour aroudn things in the event of a problem...

 

As a person who has seen this new road (of which they provide no photos), it isn't like they stole a portion of their lives.  The land was unused and this made very little impact other than a possible property value decrease due to light traffic.  The reason they didn't provide photos was probably because they wanted the words to paint a picture worse than a photo of the realism would've provided.  Its a road people.  Two lanes and 1/4 a mile long, nothing more - nothing less.  And what NREL does completely overshadows a little bit of unused land being seized to better the access and exit abilities of the thosands that work at this facility.

 

One more note before I get off my grandstand should be this: The economic benefit of NREL is outstanding in this state, as read in the article.  It provides nearly 800 million in economic benefit to the state.  If this country is all about jobs and getting the economy back on track, well then i'd silence a little bit of the rhetoric that their broken hearts overshadow the nature of NREL's mission.

 

--JJ - Former NREL employee.

DrAbraxas
DrAbraxas

i don't see what the problem with the road is. a much bigger problem, i imagine, is the county jail that's just 1/4 of a mile to the east of the road.

mary_spencer
mary_spencer

Where is the mention in the article about the PUBLIC ELEMENTARY school affected by this road? I could see taking property for some vital need but not to provide drivers a more convenient way to get to work. What about using the road up next to the park that already had access to roads that connect to Old Golden Road? Are people unable to follow simple directions to find a place? Oh wait, wasn't there some special Frog that would be endangered if they went that route? I am obviously too disgusted by this to process yet. 

maikohiga2
maikohiga2

Sounds like the woman has Ophthalmophobia – fear of being stared at and Scopophobia – fear of being looked at or stared at.

 

NO ONE is staring at you lady!

 

Next time, how about we vote the right people IN to office, all the way from City Counsel all the way to the freaking White House because the ones we have in the county obviously don't care- but this wouldn't have happened without the renewable energy act.  

pixiebabe2
pixiebabe2

The agreement was not met at all! The construction ventured far off of the land they stole and crept on private property leaving a house without the ability to even wash a load of laundry. I am excited to have a surplus of renewable energy but at what cost? At the cost of NRELs biggest supporters. Does this make any sense?

pixiebabe2
pixiebabe2

@vinnieu I guess walmart would have the same argument that it would increase jobs and bring money into the city...still illegal to claim eminate domain

pixiebabe2
pixiebabe2

@vinnieu I think more of the point is that these people worked all their lives to secure a place for their family. I'm sure there were sacrifices and plenty of overtime involved in this process and after everything is said and done your neighbor sends you documents the day before Christmas and demands your property. And yes that's exactly what happened. I would much rather buy solar for my house with my hard work rather than hand everything over because someone told me so.

pixiebabe2
pixiebabe2

@SnarkyBark thank you! You really understand the importance of this article.

pixiebabe2
pixiebabe2

@traven37 it wasn't vacant weed filled land. It was a massive garage that my father built. It was the family business that brought us so close together. It was the pasture where we fed the horses. It was a peaceful place where we could detatch ourselves from the corrupt world around us. I love what NREL has to offer but I hate the way they took everything and called it nothing. You have no right to say that our family wasn't effected. No picture would have ever been able to capture the serenity of our home.

pixiebabe2
pixiebabe2

@brax.qlipp the problem with the road is the way that it was taken. Eminent domain was used against the people and families affected. This is currently a private road to NREL not a public road. The only way its considered public is if they open it to the park. That is still not done.

pixiebabe2
pixiebabe2

@maikohiga2 they are staring. I have seen many cars nearly drive straight off the road. Not to mention the bicyclists tresspassing on clearly marked property. It sounds like you have a fear of being compassionate to a stranger.

mary_spencer
mary_spencer

 @maikohiga2 They probably are staring at her because she sits next to a beautiful water fall!

 

NWDen
NWDen

 @pixiebabe2 The way it is described in the article, it made it seem to me that maybe a lot of details and particulars were not specifically addressed in the contract.  Ambiguities can wreak havoc in contracting as both sides may interpret general clauses and terms differently.  Hence DOE claiming they complied with all terms of the contract.  If the contract was badly written and lacking in specifics, then DOE might technically be telling the truth.

 

But the only way to get DOE to comply with the terms of the contract, or have a court determine the intent of the contract, would be to take it to court.  Which I have no doubt would cost the family a great deal.  Unless the family is willing to go to the mat on this, they are probably screwed.  I don't know if the family had a lawyer the last go 'round, but if they did, they probably need a better one.  If they didn't use one with the contract, they should at least contact one to see what are their options.  Sad but true.

pixiebabe2
pixiebabe2

@NWDen our family had a great lawyer and he did everything he could for is. We thought that our own personal property would be returned to its place after the construction. I guess that is something that needs to be in writting. Although what was in writting was bent around to better the construction company. We had no rights and we lost all say. The company had easements but somehow were always past the limits and that's how we ended up with a broken leachfield. To cover theirselves they are hiring a company my family has worked with for years to replace the leachfield but it has been several months still. The road has increased the flood plane and leaves us stuck. We just got our permit the other day but now the field is going right where we wanted to build a new garage (because the original one my dad built was destroyed in the process). The construction company knew they were in the wrong and tried to make a peace offering of a bottle of wine. I don't think wine justifies breaking the law. Not to mention the fact that our family is in recovery from alcoholism. Thanks for getting to know us NREL!

 
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