Not so very long ago British Petroleum was styling itself as the world's largest solar manufacturer and promising to take us "beyond petroleum." It made that claim on the basis of having acquired a small Maryland photovoltaics maker that happened to be the world's largest PV producer. This week, BP closed down what was a left of that operation, saying it could not find a way of making money in solar.
Such are the ravages wrought by the calamitous entry into the world solar market of highly subsidized, low-labor-cost Chinese manufacturers. Another and more telling victim was Germany's Solar Millennium, which had got the world's attention with some very large utility-scale projects, based on innovative thermal technology projects, notably Blythe in California. At the end of the summer Solar Millennium announced it was redesigning the 1-gigawatt Blythe plant to be based on PV panel technology, suspending work on the project, and turning down a Department of Energy loan guarantee because the company felt DOE's terms were too restrictive. Now, this week, Solar Millennium filed for bankruptcy, its stock price plunging.
Blythe, which is to be the world's largest solar plant, was perhaps the most high-profile of U.S. utility-scale solar projects, and had gone through a number of design changes to accommodate environmental and water-management concerns. Now Solar Millennium is in the market to sell its solar order book, which exceeds 2 GW in aggregate projected capacity. Its prospects should be reasonably good, as smart investors like Warren Buffett have entered the solar market, snapping up bargains. Earlier this week, as Forbes reported, "Google and leveraged buyout giant KKR agreed to acquire four solar power plants under construction by Recurrent Energy."
In all, there have been eight major solar bankruptcies since the summer, most recently--besides Solar Millennium--Evergreen Solar and SpectraWatt. Not just because of the embarrassing Solyndra insolvency, the politics and policies of fostering alternative energy is sure to be on the presidential campaign agenda in the coming year.