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Abound Solar: Ex-NREL exec defends bankrupt firm, government investments in renewables

Abound Solar: Ex-NREL exec defends bankrupt firm, government investments in renewables

In March, when news broke about layoffs at Abound Solar, a Colorado business with government support, the chief financial officer told us he was aware his company could be used as a political football in the presidential race. In June, Abound went bankrupt and has recently been the source of more negative headlines for Obama. But one official who once worked closely with the company tells us the backlash is political and unmerited.

Loveland's Abound Solar, a company that manufactured thin-film cadmium telluride photovoltaic modules for solar panels, had worked closely with the National Renewable Energy Lab, the U.S. Department of Energy's laboratory based in Golden that's dedicated to solar technology and other alternative energies. That lab, called NREL, was the topic of our recent cover story, "Sun Burn," which took a close look at what this government-backed lab has accomplished over the last 35 years.

The National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden.
The National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden.
Photo by Mark Manger

As we reported back in the spring, Abound announced layoffs of 180 full-time workers just over a year after it received a $400 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy.

Before then, it also had research contracts with NREL, which is publicly funded through the DOE but privately operated.

In the past several days, Abound has made its way into the news again, first with 9News' Kyle Clark interview with Obama,, in which he questioned the president about the company's bankruptcy. The interview has gotten national attention.

Here's the transcript of the Abound Solar question:

KYLE CLARK: In a national address, you touted the stimulus money going to Abound Solar -- a Colorado company connected to one of your billionaire fundraisers. Now, as you may know, Abound Solar is out of business and under criminal investigation. The jobs are gone and taxpayers are out about 60 million dollars. How do you answer critics who see Abound Solar as Colorado's Solyndra -- a politically connected clean energy company that went under and took our money with it?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (Laughs) Well, Kyle, I think that if you look at our record that these loans that are given out by the Department of Energy for clean energy have created jobs all across the country and only about four percent of these loans were going to some very cutting-edge industries that are going to allow us to figure out how to produce energy in a clean, renewable way in the future and create jobs in Colorado and all around the country. And some of them have failed but the vast majority of them are pushing us forward into a clean energy direction. And that's good for Colorado and good for the country. And these are decisions, by the way, that are made by the Department of Energy, they have nothing to do with politics.

The investigation Clark referenced comes from Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck, a 2010 Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, which, according to a recent news release, is investigating allegations that officials at Abound Solar knew products the company was selling were defective. The DA's office is also looking into allegations that Abound misled lending institutions when the company applied for a "bridge loan" to keep it afloat until it received federally guaranteed loans.

In some respects, Abound has become the Colorado version of Solyndra, the oft-cited California solar failure that Obama's opponents frequently use as an example of an irresponsible investment by the Obama administration.

On Monday, Complete Colorado, a conservative website, published a report headlined: "IT WAS POLITICAL: Abound Solar DOE E-mails Prove Obama Lied." The report says e-mails obtained by Complete Colorado are evidence Abound got government support for political reasons, and contends that there were warning signs of problems within the company even before those federal loans were awarded.

The White House and the DOE maintain that there were no politics involved in the loan and that the use of these e-mails is misleading, reports the Denver Post, which also has an editorial praising the investigation.

To get a different perspective, we reached out yesterday to Ken Zweibel, who worked at NREL starting in 1979 and was the head of the thin-film photovoltaics partnership there. In that position, he partnered closely with Abound for many years before leaving the lab in 2006. He now works as the director of the George Washington University Solar Institute in Washington D.C. For "Sun Burn," he told us NREL sometimes struggled to develop technologies that are commercially viable.

Zweibel, who now has a fair amount of distance from Abound and his former government-funded position, says the use of the company's struggles for political gains is largely baseless and generally hostile to renewable energy and the support this important industry needs from government. While the government has admittedly struggled in some of its renewable investments, Zweibel argues that these challenges are much greater than a single business placed at the center of a highly polarized debate.

Continue for our interview with Ken Zweibel.

 

Ultimately, Zweibel says, it would have been impossible for Abound to know the economic factors it was up against in developing and commercializing its solar modules. In his view, DOE officials and the team at Abound could not have predicted pricing competition from China in the field of solar technology, which has made it virtually impossible for these kinds of new American manufacturing businesses to successfully transition from the lab to the marketplace.

Archive NREL photo from 1998 of Paul Moskowitz of Brookhaven National Laboratory and Ken Zweibel inspecting safety-maintenance equipment.
Archive NREL photo from 1998 of Paul Moskowitz of Brookhaven National Laboratory and Ken Zweibel inspecting safety-maintenance equipment.
Courtesy of Warren Gretz / NREL

"It wasn't possible for experts in the field to project that the price of the modules would drop to the level that they did...making almost everybody non-competitive," Zweibel says. "It wasn't really foreseeable."

And from a technology perspective, Abound is completely different from Solyndra and did not have the same challenges as the California company that has become such a frequent talking point of Obama's opponents.

[Corrected] Solyndra, Zweibel explains, was a high-cost technology that might have failed even in a better pricing climate without competition from China, which has dramatically driven prices down.

"Abound had a technology that was almost as competitive as the best technologies in the world," he says.

Simply put, Abound, in partnership with NREL, had developed a new way to manufacture these modules that was faster and cheaper than other systems. Abound's solar technology was less efficient in terms of its actual conversion of sunlight to electricity, but it was still promising in terms of its basic economic viability, he says.

But the company didn't really get a chance, according to Zweibel.

"We never anticipated that the price would go this low compared to the cost," he says. "Whenever we did our models or market projections, we always assumed there'd be some kind of profit on cost."

In the current economic climate, there's just no way America can compete with China in this field, he says.

"In the United States, we give [companies] some money and get really embarrassed when they fail. And in China, they give them some money and when they start to fail, they give them even more money," Zweibel says.

As the DOE has pointed out, China offered more than $30 billion in government backed loans to its solar manufacturing companies in 2010 and is on its way to capturing roughly half the market. Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior in Obama's administration, told us in July that there was no reason to be concerned about renewable energy in Colorado despite this bankruptcy and layoffs at an Aurora solar plant.

Even with these global challenges, government needs to continue to support renewable energy, Zweibel says, even though such funding doesn't guarantee success.

"It's clear that we should accept a certain level of risk with these investments," he says.

On Abound becoming a talking point in the elections and in Colorado, he adds, "The polarization of the politics in the United States has been sickening... [and has hurt] the ability of the United States to govern wisely."

He also says that when he worked with Abound, he was never aware of any political pressure to support it -- but there were also no reasons to worry about whether it could stay afloat.

He says, "There is a kind of oversimplified view that there's a bounty of natural gas [and oil] that has crept into the conversation in the United States -- and therefore we don't need the renewables. That's kind of the main line propaganda for the conventional sources of energy, which I think is ridiculous."

Going forward, Zweibel says he would like to see the government continue to invest in new green technologies but also work to stimulate the market so that American manufacturing in solar can compete against that in China.

Generally, the political opposition to government investments in renewables remains very troubling to him, he says. "It worries me like climate change also worries me.... We have our heads in the sand and we've decided that's the best place to be. That seems incredibly foolish to me."

More from our Environment archive: "OpenBike: New website crowd-sources latest about Denver cycling"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.


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