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Where Our $500 Million Went: Solyndra Glass Tubes Used as Modern Art

The missing Solyndra tubes have finally turned up — in a modern art exhibit at U.C. Berkeley:

One of the great mysteries of the 2011 Solyndra bankruptcy was: What happened to all that money? After the United States government "loaned" Solyndra $535 million, the money quickly vanished; the bankruptcy court later found that the company had essentially no cash on hand. They had spent it all on equipment and inventory.

Surely, then, the inventory could be sold and liquidated, to recover some of the ill-spent cash — right? Well, not really. Auctions of the material at the shuttered Solyndra factory produced very little revenue, as the highly specialized machinery and proprietary photovoltaic components spurred little interest among the auction vultures, since the parts could be used only for one specific purpose: to make Solyndra's unique tubular solar panels.

The fate of Solyndra's millions of unused glass tubes is still unknown (many of them were likely destroyed — we'll get to that part of the story in a moment), but luckily a pair of Bay Area artists managed to get their hands on some of the surviving Solyndra tubes and put them to good use...not to produce electricity, but as art.

The Solyndra tube exhibit, known as "SOL Grotto" and designed by artist/architects Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello, was installed in the University of California at Berkeley Botanical Garden as part of a larger multi-work installation dubbed "Natural Discourse":

The tubes were recovered from Solyndra. The solar panels developed by the company were claimed to be unlike any other product ever tried in the industry. The panels were made of racks of cylindrical tubes (also called tubular solar panels), as opposed to traditional flat panels. Although the company was once touted for its unusual technology, plummeting silicon prices led to the company being unable to compete with more conventional solar panels. On September 1, 2011, the company ceased all business activity, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and laid off all employees leaving behind 24 million glass tubes in San Jose, California destined to be destroyed.

Deep in the garden, SOL Grotto looks from the outside like nothing more than a lopsided blue shed built next to a small waterfall.

But inside, the artists have taken exactly 1,368 Solyndra tubes and arranged them in undulating geometric patterns.

Each of the six-foot-long tubes passes through the grotto's wall, with one end outside in the sunshine, and the other inside the darkened room; because the glass (manufactured in Germany to Solyndra's highly technical specifications) has advanced light-conducting properties, their circular ends seem to glow magically.

Here's a video of the glowing tubes in the SOL Grotto exhibit:

If you're interested in a traditional review of the entire Natural Discourse installation, the Endless Swarm blog has a good overview, and has this to say about SOL Grotto:

“SOL Grotto”, by Ronald Rael & Virginia San Fratello, was a delightful meditation on perception. Situated above Strawberry Creek, the dark wooden bunker is pierced with hundreds of glass pipes cozened from local ex-company Solyndra. Tiny snippets of the world outside can be discerned through the tubes, making one feel like they’re inside the compound eye of an insect.

Several people throughout the afternoon came to inspect the exhibit; some may have been art lovers, but I suspect many were just curious to see for themselves the only surviving Legendary Lost Tubes of Solyndra.

Although the tubes when viewed as the artists intended do indeed have a hypnotic phosphorescence...

...when viewed from the side, the magic suddenly disappears. You're jolted back to reality and realize that you're just looking at nothing more than simple tubes of glass stuck in some plywood. Kind of a metaphor for Solyndra itself: solar technology which may have seemed magical at first, but when viewed realistically turned out to be not that special.

The back side of the "grotto" shed reveals just how long the tubes really are, as the outer half of each tube reaches to catch the sunshine. I'm surprised that a curious bird or falling branch has not yet broken some of the exposed glasswork.

There are many ironies to this postmodern repurposing of scavenged Solyndra tubes, but perhaps the most bizarre is this:

The Solyndra loan guarantees were given largely at the urging of Steven Chu, appointed by Obama in 2009 to head the Department of Energy. Chu was recruited to the DOE from his position as director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where he directed research into alternative energy sources.

And where exactly is the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory? In the hills above the U.C. Berkeley campus, directly across the road from the U.C. Botanical Garden. In fact, Steven Chu's former office is only about a thousand yards from the SOL Grotto exhibit itself, as this aerial view reveals:

Is it a sheer coincidence that the few surviving repurposed Solyndra tubes ended up just a stone's throw from the former office of the one person most responsible for the Solyndra debacle? Or was this detail part of the artists' subtle sarcastic commentary?

(Answer: It's probably just a coincidence. The lead artist, Ronald Rael, is also an assistant professor at U.C. Berkeley, and is most famous for designing an alternative vision for the fence between Mexico and the United States specifically intended to mock and disparage the concept of national borders. Only someone with "progressive" politics could come up with an idea like Rael's "burrito wall," and he's therefore unlikely to disparage a fellow progressive like Chu.)