Solyndra: Its technology and why it failed

-November 21, 2011

Solyndra was a darling of clean tech but filed for bankruptcy. Department of Energy loan guarantees of $535M sparked an investigation. No wrongdoing has yet been uncovered despite a huge waste of government money. Lower production costs in China have been singled out as the critical factor in Solyndra's demise. Will this story become a parable for America's waning competitiveness?

With its clever combination of solar and cylinder, the "O" with rays striking it, and the tag line, "The new shape of solar," marketing for Solyndra's unique tubular module design was at the top of the class. It is reminiscent of making oats cereal in small toroids, the shape of the letter O. We need to determine if there was more to Solyndra than just good public relations.

Figure 1: Solyndra's elegant design is evident in this 200 series panel with well-spaced cylindrical modules and simple mounting system.

Tubular module design
The design for Solyndra panels was based on a series of tubular modules mounted parallel to each other inside a frame. The generously spaced tube structure allowed airflow through the panel thereby reducing wind loading.

Where large-area flat panels might fly off a roof in strong winds, Solyndra claimed its panels could withstand 130-mph winds without specialized mounting. With no need to physically anchor the panel to the roof, Solyndra certainly delivered on the promise of simpler installation.

On the other hand, the danger of strong winds pulling flat panels off a roof is more of an issue for the partially upright mounts typical of panels angled to the optimum azimuth for the particular geographic location. As topical and "green" as solar panels are, they are a commodity and cannot avoid economic realities. Any benefits must outweigh the cost, and standard flat panels can still be mounted horizontally to save installation costs.

A second indisputable aspect of the tubular design was that the modules could shed snow and debris that often obscure standard flat panels. In many locations, solar power output can be significantly lower while waiting for the wind to clear snow from the panels. But again, the loss of power on temporarily shaded cells needs to be weighed against the higher cost of the tubular construction.

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