Abound Solar bankruptcy: Does it raise concerns about Colorado's energy industry?

News broke yesterday that Abound Solar, a Colorado-based solar panel maker that has struggled for months -- notably with a major round of layoffs in February -- has officially filed for bankruptcy.

With this week's announcement, which affects around 125 employees in the Loveland-based facility, should folks in Colorado be concerned about the health of the state's renewable energy industry?

The short answer, which we heard after chatting with experts today, is no.

"Abound was born in Colorado and has been a dynamic entity for around twenty years," says Lorrie McAllister, executive director of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society. "That's an illustration of Colorado's [success]...as an innovation incubator for renewable energy. I don't know that our status there is diminished."

Abound, a manufacturer of thin-film cadmium telluride photovoltaic modules, is suspending operations in large part due to intense competition from Chinese manufacturers in the market of solar technology.

The company's suspension announcement notes that its funding has come from $300 million in private investment and $70 million from a Department of Energy loan guarantee program. It has not drawn down any DOE funds since August of last year, when the DOE determined that the difficult market conditions in solar did not merit the risk of additional funding.

"Aggressive pricing actions from Chinese solar panel companies have made it very difficult for an early stage startup company like Abound to scale in current market conditions," the company's statement said.

It is for this reason that experts locally are calling for more stable and consistent energy policies in the U.S. -- ones that support clean-tech innovation and allow manufacturers, who are especially hurt by the market in China to successfully compete globally.

"This just reinforces the ongoing need for a leveling of the playing field -- particularly for renewable energy manufacturers," McAllister says. "It's important that Colorado and the nation bring stability...by establishing...long-term clean energy incentives."

On the policy side, there have been recent initiatives to enforce fair trade through import tariffs, but Abound, in its press release, says "this action is unfortunately too late for the company."

McAllister believes tax credits and other similar incentives could go a long way in better supporting the industry.

Still, the Colorado energy industry is thriving, and there's no need to be overly concerned, according to Seth Masia, director of communications at the Colorado-based American Solar Energy Society.

"It's a blip," says Masia, who is also the editor of SOLAR TODAY Magazine. "General Electric [which has invested locally in Colorado] is big enough that they can compete with the Chinese government."

He adds, "The long-run health of the renewable energy business in general is going to be great. It's on a roll worldwide and in Colorado.... One of the things that brings a manufacturing facility to a specific state is the state government's friendliness to business."

Colorado is positioned to remain a leader, Masia says.

"As long as Colorado maintains a friendly atmosphere for renewable energy, renewable energy will remain healthy here. We've got the sun, we've got the wind, and we've got the expertise," he says. "If there's political will to have a healthy growing industry, we'll have one."

Political will is, of course, a very important factor, and as we noted in our previous coverage of Abound's struggles, these kinds of financial troubles and shutdowns can sometimes become talking points for the GOP against investing in alternative energy.

Masia says those kinds of criticisms are motivated solely by the fossil fuel industry and not jobs or economic development.

Despite the major job loss with Abound's shutdown, Masia says he's still confident that some of those high-tech employees will be picked up by General Electric in Colorado. "It's the same technology."

McAllister says that regardless of Colorado's thriving industry, it's always disappointing when this kind of shutdown happens. In her words, "It's very sad. It feels like an opportunity lost. With that kind of news, you wonder whether there will be others that follow. And if we don't get a more stable environment for the industry, I'm sure there may be some others that would follow."

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Sam Levin
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