By Alison Vekshin and Mark Chediak - Sep 28, 2011 11:27 AM GMT-0500
“That’s a lot of money that went into that factory and I just don’t get how that factory is going to make this company successful,” said Barry Cinnamon, chief executive officer at Westinghouse Solar, a Solyndra LLC competitor. “It’s one of those neck-snapping things every time you drove down the highway." Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
The glass-and-metal building that Solyndra LLC began erecting alongside Interstate 880 in Fremont, California, in September 2009 was something the Silicon Valley area hadn’t seen in years: a new factory.
It wasn’t just any factory. When it was completed at an estimated cost of $733 million, including proceeds from a $535 million U.S. loan guarantee, it covered 300,000 square feet, the equivalent of five football fields. It had robots that whistled Disney tunes, spa-like showers with liquid-crystal displays of the water temperature, and glass-walled conference rooms.
“The new building is like the Taj Mahal,” John Pierce, 54, a San Jose resident who worked as a facilities manager at Solyndra, said in an interview.
The building, designed to make far more solar panels than Solyndra got orders for, is now shuttered, and U.S. taxpayers may be stuck with it. Solyndra filed for bankruptcy protection on Sept. 6, leaving in its wake investigations by Congress and the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a Republican-fueled political embarrassment for the Obama administration, which issued the loan guarantee. About 1,100 workers lost their jobs.
Amid the still-unfolding postmortems, the factory stands as emblematic of money misspent and the Field of Dreams ethos that seemed to drive the venture, said Ramesh Misra, a solar-industry analyst in Los Angeles for Brigantine Advisors.
“When you don’t have the demand, you can’t go into something with the attitude, ‘Build it and they will come,’” Misra said. “You have to make sure the customers are already there when you build it.”
He is skeptical of the company’s statement, in a press release on the groundbreaking for the plant, that it had a backlog of $2 billion in orders for its cylindrical solar modules for commercial rooftops, which it touted as cheaper to install and more efficient than competing flat panels. “Backlog” is a term sometimes used loosely in the industry and may not represent firm orders at all, he said.
David Miller, a Solyndra spokesman, didn’t respond to a phone call and e-mail seeking comment.
Solyndra was the dream of founder Chris Gronet, who received a Ph.D. in semiconductor processing at Stanford University and had spent 11 years as an executive at Applied Materials Inc. (AMAT) He adopted as the company’s motto, “What we do here will someday change the world.” Gronet didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.