Why the failure of Solyndra is good for solar power

Solyndra, a would-be solar energy manufacturer that went belly up, has been in the news a lot lately because, before the company failed, the United States government gave it a sweet financing deal.

While there are some good questions to be asked about the way the financing for Solyndra was handled, the failure of this one company shouldn't really be extrapolated into a referendum on government loans for energy projects (which have otherwise been pretty successful) or the potential of solar energy. But that's not really the interesting part to me, anyway.

The interesting part is what David Biello, of Scientific American, talks about in a new article on what actually made Solyndra different and what its failure tells us about trends within the solar industry. While most solar panels are flat expanses of silicon, Solyndra was creating tubes lined with a semi-conducting material. The idea had promise … and risk, Biello writes:

On roofs that didn't line up with the sun's path across the sky, the cylindrical nature of the solar module allowed owners to get more power off the roof by capturing diffuse or reflected light. The panels did not require heavy racks that anchored deep in the roof for support but rather lay flat and spaced out to allow wind to flow through them, allowing them to withstand gusts up to 210 kilometers per hour as demonstrated during a test installation in Florida that survived a tropical storm. That also allowed more of the panels to fit on any given roof.

But Solyndra was always a dicey technology proposition: Take a temperamental semiconducting film that must be perfectly applied at high speed and pair it with a shape that is both hard to manufacture and ship. Voilà: a cylindrical solar cell that could either be a game-changer or a money-loser.

Why did it end up as the latter? Mainly, because the biggest way Solyndra had been trying to compete with silicon solar panels was on cost. And the cost of those panels has fallen farther, faster, than people expected. So while Solyndra failed, Biello says, the reason it failed is actually a really good sign for the future of solar energy.