The solar industry is undoubtedly in rapid growth and has been consistently for (several) decades now. In spite of this several companies within the field of photovoltaics have failed, some dramatically and others less dramatically. Of particular interest here are the two companies Solyndra and Konarka. Before we enter into a description of “who they were, what drove them and why it ended like it did?” a brief look at the PV landscape is perhaps useful, especially since this is where the pioneers that aspire to become the established industry of the future have to operate. Until just a few years ago evolution of solar panel cost had been predictably constant for a decade or more and the growth in installed capacity had also been viewed as a known parameter the changes of which could be projected long into the future. Then Asia changed, China started investing significantly in low cost manufacture of traditional PV and some say that the Tsunami in Japan changed the Japanese view on nuclear energy and they in part turned their focus to solar cells as one (of several) alternatives. The Chinese investments suffered like everybody else a significant challenge when the financial crisis set in and this led to a dumping of solar panel cost. Not for profit but to minimize losses. This has two consequences; firstly a company in a start-up phase without a stable product has great difficulty in competing with a company that actively market an established product while willingly (or unwillingly but out of necessity) encountering loss. Secondly, consumers are unlikely to accept an increasing cost of PV if the situation stabilizes such that the solar module cost reflects the actual cost. Perhaps one could say that the crisis drove the cost of solar modules down for good. Anyone wishing to market PV today has to achieve a cost that competes with today’s cost. Unlike, petrol where the owner of a car is used to a large fluctuation in cost, the cost of solar energy is always paid up front. A sudden increase in cost is thus likely to turn consumers away from such a technology since there are alternatives (even if they are not good for the environment).

Returning to our two solar start-up companies that were both founded when the future was known to a level where calculated risks could be justified in front of an investor. It is obvious that the financial crisis was not welcome and neither was the change in the market as a result of radical changes in a large economy such as the Chinese and perhaps also due to natural disasters. One could argue that it was a losing battle and a logic impossibility for a newly started technology heavy company to survive under such adverse conditions, and that the reasons for the past failures also rule the possibilities for the existence of future companies with the same aims.

Solyndra aimed at manufacture of tubular solar cells prepared by a clever process where sealing methods were similar to fluorescent light tubes thus presenting an excellent seal for the active PV material (CIGS) which requires absolute absence of atmospheric components. The technology was unique and radically different from existing flat panel based PV. The tubes could be mounted in light structures and did not present wind and snow loading problems. The performance however was lower than existing PV and the manufacturing process complex to up-scale. In spite of the company managed to actively market and install many megawatts of PV power. The lack in performance compared to existing PV and the financial climate described above led to failure in spite of heavy US government subsidy schemes.

Konarka aimed at low cost thin film polymer solar cells and succeeded in demonstrating the solar cells in test products such as bags and awnings with a clear aim towards building integration. Again the technology was unique in both its manufacture and potential areas of application but in terms of performance it was lower than the existing PV technologies on the market and the company also suffered from the financial crisis and an inability to raise more funding.

Both companies thus filed for bankruptcy (Solyndra in September 2011 and Konarka in of June 2012) and left a lot of investors and tax payers empty handed. It is clear that both companies had unique technology and both companies reached market but why did they fail, were the technology only robust enough to survive in a strong financial climate or does this confirm the hypothesis that you can only succeed with a new technology if it is better than the existing technologies out there even with government subsidy? While fact would offer a partial yes to this question it is clear that new technology has to be fully competitive at the point of market entry and for very complex and technology heavy PV such as the Konarka and Solyndra products this requires investors that are willing to wait the while or put differently that are rich enough to be patient.

Perhaps energy for the globe is not a private interest but at least a national one and possibly even a global one. There are many transnational agencies endowed with the power of funding activities with a mutual interest, perhaps what we need is a transnational or global funding agency that deliberately seeks to stimulate and create renewable energy producing capacity with a clear objective to create green energy for the entire world. Such an organisation would, needless to say, have to operate with a clear objective of not generating monetary profit but with a clear aim to make a green world with profit for the environment that we all share.

Who is still standing within OPV? There are companies such as Solarmer, Osilla, Heliatek, Plextronics, Next Energy Technologies, Wei Hua Solar and they all aim at marketing OPV or products for it but there is a huge challenge in lifting OPV to stand on its own two legs and the future relies heavily on finding a ground to stand on where on takes distinct advantage of the technology so that there is either no competition with other PV or the competition comes out in favour of OPV.


In the forthcoming blog: why technologies such as OPV have a chance and how it should be realized.