CSU inventor: Troubles with tape fed Abound’s collapse

FORT COLLINS – The end came just as the research and development team had turned the corner.

By then, however, it was too late; the money had run out.

That is how CSU mechanical engineering Professor W.S. Sampath describes the final days of Abound Solar, the Loveland-based bankrupt solar-panel company that relied on his lab work to make its solar arrays.

Sampath’s technology is based on a thin film of cadmium telluride. It was supposed to produce electricity at a cost as low as $2 per watt, about half the cost of power generated by traditional solar panels, which use crystalline silicon.

In testimony before Congress and in media interviews, Abound — which had drawn down $70 million on a $400 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy — has blamed its failure on competition from the Chinese. China has pumped billions of dollars into its solar industry, allowing its manufacturers to undercut U.S. and other competitors.

Sampath, in his first in-depth remarks on the company’s problems, blames the Chinese, as well, but said he also was told of problems on the manufacturing floor.

Soon after Abound filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in June, Sampath requested a meeting with former employees in the company’s R&D department. They brought Abound’s downfall into focus.

“We had a long discussion,” he said.

What Sampath learned was that Abound’s “very complex (manufacturing) system” hinged on too many electrical components and the wrong materials.

One of the main problems was with poorly designed “bus-bar tape” used in Abound’s solar panels, he said. The tape collected electrical current from a larger area on the panel and transmitted it to wiring on the outside.

Abound acknowledged it struggled with issues in its bus bars in a quarterly report to the energy department in 2011.

Abound went through several vendors before it found the correct design for bus-bar tape from 3M, Sampath was told. In the meantime, Abound was forced to make changes to equipment on its production line.

“You’ve got a big manufacturing line and then you have to redo the line for this new tape,” he said. “It wasn’t easy: You had to stop the production and change the tape and so on.”

The tape issue had nothing to do with the technology that Sampath spent 21 years developing; in fact, he said he never actually made panels in his lab.

Although he continues to stand behind it, Sampath also acknowledged his technology wasn’t perfect: It had been subjected to review by national testing labs, but questions remained about how it would perform outdoors.

Sampath pointed out that other solar panel makers such as Tempe, Ariz.-based First Solar use the sort of cadmium-telluride technology he developed.

But First Solar also has struggled lately, reporting a third-quarter decline in sales of 17 percent from a year earlier.

And like Abound, First Solar has had to replace defective panels.

Problems in solar-panel technology are par for the course, according to Sampath.

“You pass these (manufacturing) standards and you put them out in the field,” Sampath explained. “You encounter some problems and you figure out how to fix it.”

“Then you go back and replace all these old panels,” he said. “This is how the industry has been going.”

Abound Solar’s experience certainly fits that description.

A total of 350 of its faulty panels had to be replaced at the Rocky Mountain Innosphere in Fort Collins, among other locations. In all, thousands of other panels used in solar arrays worldwide also were replaced before the company’s closure.

Documents from the U.S. Committee on Energy and Commerce, which is investigating Abound, show that the company spent more than $8 million replacing defective panels with new ones. That figure includes the amount spent recycling the faulty panels.

Two leading manufacturing testing groups, UL and the International Electrotechnical Commission, had certified Abound Solar panels.

Sampath, however, now believes the evaluations may not have gone far enough.

“There’s a good understanding in the research community that more tests need to be performed,” he said.

Complicated technology takes time to refine, he said. In the end, Abound didn’t have as much time as First Solar has had to make adjustments to its solar panels, he said.

“The money ran out,” Sampath explained. “The DOE wouldn’t extend their loan.”

The energy department halted disbursements on Abound’s loan guarantee in September 2011. It did so because the company had failed to meet “some of the financial milestones built into the loan agreement” after the floor fell out on the prices of solar panels, DOE spokesman Damien LaVera said in a blog post June 28, the day Abound announced its bankruptcy.

Just what those milestones were remains unclear; the DOE has refused to release details of the loan agreement.

Despite Abound’s problems, Sampath believes the U.S. government should continue to subsidize the solar industry as well as research and development in the field.

He maintains that Chinese subsidies played a critical role in Abound’s collapse.

Without those subsidies, Abound might have been able to better compete, he said.

“If you talk to the R&D folks, they seemed to have worked out all the known problems that were there in the field, toward the end,” he said.

By then, however, time had run out for Abound.

The real “tragedy” of Abound’s failure, he said, is that Chinese crystalline silicon panels are incapable of generating as much electricity as his own, Sampath said.

His technology, he said, still has the potential to produce more electricity at a lower cost.

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