Stirling Energy Systems (SES) recently filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which further complicates California’s big push toward 33% renewable energy by 2020, as two massive solar thermal projects had been approved using the company’s technology.
A Chapter 7 filing means the company is dead and remaining assets will be liquidated. In contrast, Chapter 11 and 13 bankruptcy mean the company will be reorganized and has a chance at survival. SES developed a unique form of solar thermal which reflects the heat of the sun to a solar Stirling engine, converting it to rotary power in order to power the generators. But solar thermal in general has been having a difficult time, as the price of silicon and developing solar photovoltaic panels has plunged. At one point, solar thermal may have been competitive, but it no longer is. More and more, solar plant developers are moving to PV and away from solar thermal, a trend which is happening in California too. Solar thermal does has one big advantage over PV, though. It can store heat in molten salt to generate power at night. But this simply isn’t enough to keep it cost-competitive.
Stirling solar technology was originally going to be used in two massive solar plants in California totaling 1372.5 MW. One of these was the huge 850 MW Calico Solar facility. But both have been troubled. Calico was sold, scaled back, and still can’t find loan money. As reported last week, First Solar cancelled a project in San Luis Obispo which would have been 550 MW, because they couldn’t meet DOE requirements for a federal loan on time. Thus, in less than two weeks, nearly 2000 MW (2 GW) of new solar power construction for California has been put on hold, quite possibly permanently. It can take months, even years, for a project to be approved the California Energy Commission. Then, there are all the other local and regional governing bodies, as well as citizens’ groups to contend with and environmental impact reports to be filed. This loss of 2 GW of planned solar power will not be recovered from quickly.
Meanwhile, the news about Solyndra continues to be dire and will negatively impact solar power in California. Last week, DOE admitted that Solyndra violated their loan terms in December 2010 and were given new loan terms. Sure, loans can always be re-negotiated, but DOE then lent an obviously shaky company $535 million, and then allowed a $75 million private loan from a company controlled by major Solyndra investor and billionaire Democratic fundraiser George Kaiser to be senior to it. This means the $75 million comes first in a bankruptcy, before the US loan. Since Solyndra may sell for less than $75 million, that leaves the government with nothing. Republicans are just a teensy bit irked by this, and are promising intensive investigations. Plus, the San Francisco Chronicle wonders why Solyndra spent apparently excessive amounts building a new factory when plenty of space was already available.
All of this will make any renewable energy company highly leery of seeking federal funds because it has become so politicized. This is turn will greatly slow the creation of new renewable energy plants in California.