The Bright Side of Solar-Panel Failures: The Ticker

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By Tobin Harshaw

The chapter 11 filing this week by the solar-cell manufacturer SpectraWatt Inc., coming on the heels of the bankruptcy of Evergreen Solar Inc., provides easy fodder for those who are cynical about the future of alternative energy.

SpectraWatt couldn't make a go of it despite having been gestated inside Intel Inc. and enjoying the blue-chip backing of Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Evergreen, which received tens of millions of dollars in federal stimulus money and aid from its home state of Massachusetts, failed even after deciding in February to save labor costs by moving much of its operation to China. The headlines write themselves: "Obama Green Project Goes Dark."

But one can also see in the companies' failures the healthy maturation of an industry. Evergreen's business strategy was developed years ago when prices for polysilicon, a vital component in its photovoltaic cells, were skyrocketing. By using less polysilicon than other manufacturers, it hoped to gain a competitive advantage.

Unfortunately for Evergreen, polysilicon prices tumbled, from a high of $475 per kilogram in early 2008 to $52 today. The company had an impossible time repositioning itself in the industry because its singular technology didn't play well with that of others. Both Evergreen and SpectraWatt suffered from the proliferation of Chinese manufacturers and the rise of price-cutting domestic competitors such as First Solar Inc., an Arizona company that uses a thin-film technology.

Call it bad business planning or bad luck, but  the firms simply fell behind their industry. As Nathaniel Bullard, a colleague at our sister operation Bloomberg New Energy Finance, puts it: "It's not enough to be good, a technology must also be cheap and fast -- that is, production must be ramped up quickly. Evergreen's product was reasonably good, but it wasn't cheap and it wasn't really fast."

Understandably, consumers simply went elsewhere: The number of photovoltaic installations worldwide climbed 140 percent in 2010 from the previous year. The market worked -- and that will be the key for renewable energy over the long haul.

(Tobin Harshaw is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)

-0- Aug/24/2011 15:50 GMT