Explaining Southern California's economy

Amonix: More woes for government-supported solar startups

Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) River Mountains Water Treatment Facility, Henderson, NV, USA

Carlos Alejandro

Amonix panels at the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Amonix has hit serious financial troubles and will be closing a Las Vegas manufacturing facility.

Solyndra, a solar startup that went bankrupt last year, has become a poster child for what many conservatives think is a failed effort by the Obama Administration to support the U.S. cleantech industry. The story isn't as simple or straightforward as that, but it does bring up the debate anytime another green energy company with government funding gets into trouble.

That's what appears to be happening now with Amonix, a Seal Beach-based solar company that's been struggling in the tragic aftermath of the death of CEO Brian Robertson in a plane crash last year. The startup has laid off workers in California and is now shutting down a manufacturing facility in Las Vegas, according to the company. Some kind of "restructuring" looms, but it's unclear whether that means Chapter 11 bankruptcy or Chapter 7 liquidation. 

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Visual Aid: Ouch! Solyndra-gate makes the 'Daily Show'

Jon Stewart & Co. go to town on the Solyndra bankruptcy and potential Obama administration scandal. It's funny. Real funny. But I'm still worried that the media coverage of Solyndra-gate — as well as the blogospheric response — is perpetuating a couple of big misunderstandings:

1. That Solyndra wasn't being invested in before the DOE showed up with its $535 million loan guarantee. It had already been indentified by investors as a viable company that had a unique solar technology.

2. That Solyndra's total investment of roughly $1.5 billion...wasn't supposed to be spent! It had to get spent and spent fast, and here's why. Solyndra needed to provide an exit strategy for its investors that would have culminated in an IPO. No reason to save money while driving toward that goal. Also, if Solyndra was going to create the economic stimulus that the adminstration wanted, it had to get as much of that $535 million in play as it could, as fast as possible. On that front, Solyndra succeeded wildly: it managed to spend $527 million before it had to declare bankruptcy earlier this month.

So laugh along with the 'Daily Show.' But try to think a little bit like an investor in a risky, cutting-edge industry at the same time.

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Solyndra-gate and the reality of Green investment

I went on KPCC's AirTalk with Larry Mantle this morning to talk about the Solyndra bankruptcy and what's turning into something of a scandal. This was hot on the heels of the Atlantic's Megan McArdle and Reason's Tim Cavanaugh going after not just the politics of this sucker, but also the very notion that the Federal government should be investing in renewable energy in the first place. 

Just for background, Solyndra got a $535 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy in 2009, four years after it was founded and well into an application process that was initiated under the Bush administration (Grist has the blow-by-blow on all this). Prior the the DOE loan, Solyndra had raised venture funding; after the DOE loan, it raised even more, eventually amounting to $1 billion. Post-bankruptcy, the Washington Post reported that the White House had been edging the DOE toward an approval, so that Joe Biden and DOE head Stephen Chu could schedule appearances. And just to make things extra juicy, a big Obama supporter and "bundler" of campaign donations, George Kaiser, has a venture fund that was heavy into Solyndra.

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