Unmentioned at the Debate: Romney's Own 'Solyndra'

Konarka's printed solar cells sewn into a handbag | Photo: Canada Science and Technology Museum/Flickr/Creative Commons License

As ReWire mentioned earlier today, the ghost of failed solar manufacturer Solyndra haunted last night's Presidential debate, with Republican candidate Mitt Romney insinuating that that bankruptcy characterizes most of the administration's renewable energy policy. But there was an elephant in the room, and it wasn't there campaigning for the GOP. In early June, a Lowell, Massachusetts-based thin film solar panel manufacturer filed for bankruptcy after receiving $6.5 million in grants from a Massachusetts alternative energy trust fund -- $1.5 million of that during Romney's tenure as Governor.

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Konarka Technologies, a manufacturer of experimental photovoltaic plastics based on light-sensitive organic compounds, announced June 1 that it was filing for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 7 of the federal bankruptcy laws. The immediate reason for the bankruptcy filing was the company's inability to raise cash from investors, a serious problem for a maker of an unorthodox PV technology competing in the marketplace with increasingly inexpensive thin-film solar cells from China.

Konarka launched with much fanfare in 2001, with Nobel laureate chemist Alan Heeger among its founders. Its main focus at launch was on developing a polymer-based photovoltaic surface that could be mass-produced by printing at relatively low temperatures, and which could produce electricity in much darker conditions than currently available PV cells -- including indoors.

The June announcement came at an inconvenient time for the Republican candidate: he had held a press event at Solyndra headquarters just days before, in which he castigated President Obama for granting Department of Energy loan guarantee money to that failed solar company. The subsequent coverage was mainly confined to Massachusetts papers, as the story didn't get much traction, but Boston Globe political correspondent Callum Borchers did dredge up a soundbite from Romney's term as governor that was moderately embarrassing:

In January 2003, shortly after taking office in Massachusetts, Romney held press conference -- at Konarka, where he announced a plan to loan $24 million from the state's renewable energy trust fund to startups with the potential to create jobs.

"The trust fund has been growing for years,'' Romney said at the time, "and I believe now is the time to refocus its assets in such a manner that it can become a major economic springboard for the Commonwealth by focusing on job creation in the renewable energy sector.''

Romney's aides didn't refer to that statement in June. Instead, they claimed that Romney had actually tried to reduce the renewable energy trust fund, and pointed out -- truthfully enough -- that most of Konarka's state grants were awarded during Deval Patrick's tenure as governor.

Stacking up the money Massachusetts lost in backing Konarka against Solyndra's loss may make it seem less like Konarka's an elephant in the room and more like a flea: $6.5 million is only a small percentage of the $535 million the DOE lent to Solyndra. But adjust those figures on the basis of the relative sizes of the Massachusetts and U.S. economies, and the difference doesn't seem so great: the U.S.'s gross domestic product is about 45 times the size of Massachusetts'. The Konarka bankruptcy is thus about half as expensive to Massachusetts, by proportion, as Solyndra's may be to the U.S. as a whole.

Ironically, both investments were failures only in hindsight. Both Solyndra's and Konarka's technologies were innovative, interesting, and worthy of further examination. But don't expect either side to make that point as we approach the election.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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San Francisco got a bunch of new bus stop shelters. They have a wavy roof on top (allowing rain to get in, oops), and a regular solar panel would spoil the look, so with great fanfare they promoted their use of Konarka's product.

The details changed with each press release. Supposedly these panels would power free wi-fi, a NextBus prediction display, and light up advertisements, with extra to go into the grid. 1/3rd of the shelters would be solar. Then it was announced that the panels would only power 1/3rd (there's that number again) of the shelter's energy needs. You could tell something wasn't quite right.

Last I knew, there was exactly 1 bus shelter with a Konarka solar array on the roof. If there's a massive power outage in San Francisco, at least the ad will remain lit up for the folks at the corner of Geary and Arguello.