Solar Trust of America, a California solar outfit that received $2.1 billion in loan guarantees from the Department of Energy, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in Delaware, listing its assets between $1 and $10 million and liabilities up to $100 million.
From left, here’s California governor Jerry Brown with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and former Solar Trust CEO Uwe T. Schmidt at a June groundbreaking ceremony for the Blythe solar plant, one of two desert locations Solar has invested hundreds of millions in developing.
At the time, the trio praised the plant as the largest solar installation in the world, and promised it would create 1,000 “union jobs” and power as many as 300,000 homes in the Mojave. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu led his announcement of the loan guarantee — the largest issued by DOE to date — with a cheerful “I have good news.”
In a March 2011 op-ed for Huffington Post, Schmidt called the loan-guarantee program a “‘win-win’ for government and the companies involved,” and warned that the Republican Congress’s attempt to roll back the program would “put into jeopardy the enormous amounts of private capital already committed.” Six months later, following the high-profile bankruptcy of Solyndra, Schmidt took to the the pages of HuffPo once more, to argue that one failure should not cast doubt on the merits of the DOE program, or of business models like Solar Trust’s.
So what went wrong with our federal program to support renewables? Nothing, except one company’s bankruptcy has cast doubt on the credibility of a government program that is otherwise being administered with incredible efficiency. The facts are that 22 other companies have received loan guarantees, and 18 others are on track to receive them shortly. These 40 companies and projects represent a diversified investment portfolio across multiple industries and disciplines. To claim the entire program is flawed because one company failed after unfortunately getting priced out of the market is to ignore the incredible successes the program can be credited with on numerous other fronts.
Indeed, despite the posturing and finger pointing, the American solar energy industry is alive and well. I should know. My company, Solar Trust of America, is planning to build over 2,000 MW of new solar plants in the coming years. Add to that an additional 5,500 MW of planned utility-scale projects by other companies throughout the American Southwest. And this says nothing of the thousands of megawatts of new solar projects that will be built on hundreds of thousands of rooftops across the country.
Solar Trust’s operations relied on massive “power towers” — fields of reflective mirrors that focus sunlight on a central point, where energy-retentive tanks of saltwater are heated and the subsequent steam used to power turbines. The concept was hardly new. In 1981, the DOE partnered with several California utilities to build a massive, $147 million power tower called Solar One about ten miles east of Barstow, Calif. It never became commercially viable, and was disabled in 1986. A successor, Solar Two, ran from 1995 to 1999, when it was converted by U.C. Davis into a telescope.