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


Here's where the story takes a tragic turn. If SOL Grotto has only 1,368 of the estimated 24 million high-tech unused Solyndra tubes, what happened to the rest of them?

The answer is not entirely clear at this stage, but we do have some clues.

Greg Smestad attended the Solyndra bankruptcy auction back in December of last year, and filed this astonishing report about what he saw:

The stress that Solyndra was under earlier this year seemed to go unchecked by both U.S. federal officials, who had granted the more than $535 million loan guarantee, as well as private investors and members of the Solyndra Board of Directors. I found evidence that the cracks in the business were in plain view almost a year ago. Like Christmas past, they are just under the surface but appear unexpectedly when all else is dark.

I saw the evidence during the first (live) auction that took place in November. It was still there on December 12 and yet everyone walked by without noticing its significance. There were crates and pallets, cubes about two meters on a side, stamped with part number, origin and production date of their contents. The one-meter, uncoated Solyndra cylindrical glass tubes inside the boxes were manufactured by Schott Rohrglas in Germany and represent one of the most critical items in the supply chain for the cylindrical PV panels that were made by Solyndra until the company went bankrupt in September.

Each box contained 2000 tubes on which vacuum deposition machines coated a thin film layer of the CIGS PV semiconductor. This smaller CIGS-coated tube was placed inside a larger, uncoated, glass cover tube, that I saw in neighboring crates and pallets, and the two concentric tubes were sealed at the ends with a metal-to-glass seal much like a fluorescent tube. The room contained an array of 20-by-25 boxes containing 800,000 to 1 million tubes in unopened crates and pallets. They were neatly arranged in rows by month: January 2011, February 2011, March 2011, April 2011 and so on.

Had I walked into this factory in early 2011, I would have undoubtedly asked why the expensive, high purity glass tubes were coming in but not being used. This represents a serious mismatch in the supply chain between finished goods produced, Solyndra solar panels, and the raw materials coming in.

But it gets much worse. After nobody bought the tubes at the auction, Solyndra started discarding them crate by crate into Dumpsters:

At Solyndra’s sprawling complex in Fremont, workers in white jumpsuits were unwrapping brand new glass tubes used in solar panels last week. They are the latest, most cutting-edge solar technology, and they are being thrown into dumpsters.

Forklifts brought one pallet after another piled high with the carefully packaged glass. Slowly but surely it all ended up shattered.

And it’s not a few loads. Hundreds of thousands of tubes on shrink-wrapped pallets will meet a similar demise.

A local CBS affiliate news helicopter captured video of the horrifying and seemingly pointless destruction of the tubes:

Sickening to watch. Solyndra convinced the bankruptcy judge that the resale value of their expensive techno-tubes was lower than the cost to warehouse them, and so got permission to simply throw them away.

This photo montage of Solyndra workers throwing the glass tubes into Dumpsters was compiled from freezeframes of the video above.

But all is not lost! Some of the tubes seem to have been rescued. In addition to the 1,368 tubes salvaged and used in the SOL Grotto exhibit, the aforementioned Greg Smestad also seems to have saved some from destruction, and is now promoting their use as flower vases (seriously):

He also maintains a Picasaweb photo album which shows exactly how the tubes were supposed to be used in Solyndra solar arrays, in case you're curious to see what their original purpose was.

Do you want your own Solyndra souvenir? Good news: at least two companies, Lucky Equipment and Sol Ideas, saved some of the tubes from oblivion and are now selling them to the public (in bulk, unfortunately, not one by one).

UPDATE: Ronald Rael bought the tubes used in the exhibit from JIT Transportation a shipping and storage firm in San Jose, which ended up with 8 million of them and an unpaid bill when Solyndra went bankrupt. Although JIT Transportation does not advertise the tubes for sale, they are apparently still trying to find a way to unload them, so you might try giving them a call as well.

Bonus Links:

- Complete description of the Natural Discourse installation.

- Photos from the artists' Facebook page showing the SOL Grotto being built and the tubes installed.

- Many more photos of the tubes inside the grotto on "ron_toad"'s Flickr page.

- Solyndra: Its technology and why it failed

So this is what became of our $535 million: Some glass tubes stuck in a box in the middle of a garden:

Goodbye tubes! Goodbye Solyndra! Goodbye fiscal sanity!


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The San Jose Mercury News on August 22 published an article describing the political fallout from this post going viral and becoming national news.