Minnesota solar panel maker struggles, skips loan payments

  • Article by: DAVID SHAFFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 4, 2012 - 9:44 PM

Silicon Energy opened a plant in Mountain Iron, Minn., last year, but has missed its first government loan payments amid slow sales.

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clafaveSep. 4, 1210:37 PM

Just not enough subsidies to go around. Maybe because there's not enough other people's money to go around.

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garagewineSep. 4, 1211:44 PM

Glad to know we're on the hook for this one, too.

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wallyworldmnSep. 5, 12 8:22 AM

I believe that we need to continue to work on alternative energy resources. As an engineer, I also understand that solar energy is great for smaller opportunities where remote power sources for controls and similar applications can benefit. Since the sun is not a reliable instantaneous source on a 24/7 basis, we need to look at energy sources that take advantage of natural energy storage. Fossil fuels are a good example of solar energy + storage. It took the storage of thousands of years of solar energy to produce fossil fuels. Hydroelectric is another form of solar energy that has a storage component and we have harnessed it well. Geothermal energy storage is right below our feet and represents another form of solar energy plus storage. The problem with geothermal is that it is not as easy to harness because you need a heat pump. It is still a resource that is incredibly underutilized and not understood by the public. People understand how solar seems to give you "free energy" but the enemy is time and the need to have a reliable supply. Solar is not free and it is foolish to throw too much money to subsidize and advocate for using it in a manner that will only bring disappointment. Do the research and you will find that solar makes a great "supplemental" energy source but it is a terrible primary source. Especially in Minnesota.

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bosshogSep. 5, 12 9:02 AM

Or it could be that these panels weren't that great. You can see from the images on their site that the panels have large raised metal seams between the individual cells and don't even have an outside frame for support. Most "real" manufacturers of solar panels create panels that are completely flush between the cells and have a strong aluminum frame around the outside edge. So the problem seems more like it is simply a bad product compared to others on the market and is more of the reason why they aren't doing well. Just as with any industry there are those that make good products and those that make bad products. Don't lump this company in with the rest of the RE companies making good products.

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esandeenSep. 5, 12 9:19 AM

bosshog, actually, they are pretty good panels, in my estimation. You're right that they have a different form factor, but unlike more traditional residential panels, they have no sealant or backing sheet, but are instead fully encased in glass. The "raised metal seam" is actually a raceway which encloses all wiring and protects it from critters and the elements. They seem quite bulletproof; NREL did accelerated lifetime testing of PV panels and these came out near the top. I've also seen a picture of a truck with one tire up on one of these panels, and the panel is supporting it. They are very robust. They're also quite aesthetically pleasing, in my opinion, compared to the more industrial looking panels often used. But they're also a fair bit more expensive than other panels, and have a unique form-factor, which may work against them in some cases. Lest you think I'm shilling for the company, I'm not. I'm in favor of reasonable incentives for solar, and in favor of lowering them as the prices drop (which they have, overall). The Xcel rebate for Minnesota-made panels is extremely generous; in my opinion, possibly too generous. I'd love to see an MN solar industry grow up, but we do need to think about how best to use limited funds. For all the generosity afforded this company, they'd darned well better be able to get up and running.

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mdmac2704Sep. 5, 1212:47 PM

Didn't the Chinese government ruin the U.S. domestic Solar power industry with unfair subsidies to Chinese manufacturers? How come this rarely comes up? Perhaps besides economic there are other reasons for China to do this?

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ruphinaSep. 5, 12 1:24 PM

%5.1 million in loans and only half the projected $8M in sales, even with a 60% subsidy. Talk about a pipedream. Bill G.

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Truckman182Sep. 5, 12 2:25 PM

Just another Green Energy boondoggle that can only survive if its on the government dole. Go down to Florida look how they don't use solar energy very much. Why? The sun is mega hot down there year round yet rarely do you see any panels. It is not an efficient source of energy based on cost.....

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esandeenSep. 5, 12 3:58 PM

Truckman182, solar PV does not operate on heat, so being "mega hot down there" is not relevant. Hours of sunshine, hot or cold, is what matters for these applications. Florida ranks 9th in solar power potential in the US. Florida had 95 Megawatts of installed solar PV capacity in 2011, also ranking 9th in the country, so it seems they are about where I'd expect them to be. I'm not sure where you get the notion that they "don't use solar energy very much?"

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swmnguySep. 5, 12 8:14 PM

I think we're going to regret our late and lukewarm entry into the alternative and renewable energies. Right now natural gas is super-cheap, but the depletion rates from fracking are phenomenally steep.

I think more use of solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and even tidal electrical generation would be very wise supplements to our stored-solar power sources like oil, gas and coal. We're not going to stop using those sources, but why use them faster than we need to?

The cost arguments are distorted because nobody includes the subsidies, tax advantages, and cleanup costs related to gas, oil and coal; yet those costs are always included in the accounting for the renewables. The established fossil industries don't like competition, even when it's not really competition, but instead a complementary source.

I've noted when I've traveled in China that every building roof is covered with cheap solar water heaters and small panel arrays. They sure haven't stopped burning coals over there, but since the sun's shining anyway, they use it. I think we'll be really sorry someday that we've let every other developed country get ahead of us on this.

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