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.)
WHAT HAPPENED TO ALL THE OTHER TUBES?
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.
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.