FBI agents carry boxes from Solyndra headquarters in Fremont, Calif., in September.
On the morning of Aug. 31, employees of a solar company in California arrived at work to find the company's doors locked. So began the largest venture capital failure in the history of the markets, the bankruptcy of solar panel maker Solyndra.
2011 was the year of the solar bankruptcy. A supply/demand imbalance leading to what many thought was an unimaginable free fall in pricing made high-cost companies like Solyndra obsolete, seemingly overnight. Evergreen Solar, Spectrawatt ...the list of 2011 solar bankruptcies in the U.S. and in Europe is a lengthy one, and many other solar manufacturers had to scale back plans and shut down some operations just to make it through lean times.
Solyndra, though, was a solar bankruptcy of greater magnitude than any other in a brutal year for the sector.It was a little more than a year before Solyndra's bankruptcy in May 2010 that President Obama appeared for a photo-op on the floor of Solyndra's plant, with the solar panel manufacturer hand-selected by the White House as the hallmark of its dual renewable energy and manufacturing job creation strategy. With 20-by-30 foot American flags draped in the background, President Obama declared, "It's here that companies like Solyndra are leading the way toward a brighter and more prosperous future." It was a photo-op and comment that came back to haunt Obama, once Solyndra's 1,100 workers were out of a job and once the public realized what Congress and the markets had always known: In addition to the $1 billion of venture capital invested in the company, Solyndra had received a $535 million loan from the U.S. government, the first loan in the Department of Energy's pioneering loan guarantee program, a loan that may never be repaid. Solyndra's bankruptcy auction of manufacturing assets is scheduled for mid-January 2012. It will be back in the headlines again. In the aftermath of Solyndra's bankruptcy, there has been a ceasless campaign by Republicans on the House energy investigative subcommittee to prove tainted ties between the White House and backers of Solyndra, including one of Obama's biggest fund-raisers, Oklahoma billionaire George Kaiser, accused of "rushing" the Solyndra loan through and prevailing over sounder heads in the government. There has been a more successful campaign to gut the Department of Energy loan guarantee program. Leaving the right and left of the political issue to the side, though, the Solyndra bankruptcy cuts to the root of some of the most important issues that the U.S. faces in future energy and manufacturing policy. How does the government stimulate a 21st century energy infrastructure? Is it by insisting on our own renewable energy manufacturing sector, or focusing on deploying renewable energy generation projects while ceding to China the business of churning out a massive supply of cheap solar panels? Indeed, one of the more frustrating elements of the Solyndra bankruptcy is that for all the focus it received in 2011, as a nation we've barely begun to deal with the fundamental questions raised by its failure. -- Eric Rosenbaum
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