Two years ago, President Barack Obama hailed Loveland-based Abound Solar Inc. for its state-of-the-art technology and its potential to create thousands of jobs.
Governors and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle joined in, lauding the manufacturer of cadmium telluride thin-film solar panels for the potential economic benefits generated by facilities in Longmont and Tipton, Ind.
Abound received a $400 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy, drew down $70 million and, by the end of last year, ramped up production at its 400-employee Longmont-area plant.
This year, however, the attention directed toward Abound has spun swiftly from praise to skepticism.
At the end of February, Abound laid off 280 workers -- about 90 were temporary employees -- at its Longmont plant and halted production as a means of retooling its manufacturing and equipment to accommodate a more efficient module. The production freeze put a hold on plans to open a facility in Indiana, although company officials said the Tipton facility is still in its "long-term plans."
The move landed Abound in the national spotlight with analysts, industry observers and lawmakers throwing the Loveland firm's name in the same sentence as Solyndra, the failed solar panel manufacturer that went bankrupt after drawing down the vast majority of its $535 million loan guarantee from the U.S. government. A criminal grand jury investigation of Solyndra is under way.
Abound officials remain faithful in the next-generation technology under development and confident that the company will rebound and thrive.
Some analysts are skeptical of a successful turnaround and say the market forces -- including pricing pressures from Chinese crystalline silicon solar panel makers and a heavily competitive domestic field -- that drove Abound to a halt will be too great for the firm to overcome.
And in an election year, Abound's ability to survive also could have
broader implications for an administration that vowed to develop alternative energy sources.
The production shutdown also helped Abound land on a scathing congressional committee report that lambasted the Department of Energy's alternative energy loan program.
"DOE has overseen a process wrought with misdirection, changing and expanding requirements, unexplained delays, gross mischaracterizations, and a never-ending cycle of excuses," officials for the Republican-majority House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform wrote in the March 20 report. "Not only does it appear that DOE purposely directed taxpayer funds at a failing enterprise, DOE's action robbed taxpayers of genuine investment toward renewable energy."
Abound Solar's meteoric rise began quickly after the company was spun out of Colorado State University and incorporated as AVA Solar Inc. in 2007.
AVA Solar officials touted a technology and a manufacturing process that could result in inexpensive thin-film solar panels for large-scale industrial and utility applications. The technology -- with roots in CSU research stretching back more than 25 years -- involved depositing the entire multiple-layer semiconductor stack on a glass pane in a single vacuum chamber. In other thin-film solar cell applications, those layers were applied separately.
By the end of 2008, AVA Solar raised $104 million in venture capital, which was the largest such haul that year by any Colorado company. The backing caught the eye of BusinessWeek, which placed AVA Solar on its list of the 25 most successful startups in 2008.
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