Undaunted by the Solyndra bankruptcy, the Obama administration is marching ahead with a big new investment in a nascent renewable-energy sector player, wrapping up a $150 million loan guarantee to Massachusetts-based 1366 Technologies. In finalizing the loan that had been conditionally guaranteed back in June, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) said 1366’s “innovative process” could trim the manufacturing costs of silicon wafers used in photovoltaic cells by half.
You probably know the Solyndra story: The DOE guaranteed $535 million in loans to the company, then it went belly-up, causing all manner of biowaste to hit the fan. Could the same thing happen to 1366 Technologies? The man who runs the loan guarantee program, Jonathan Silver, pooh-poohed the notion. Silver told the New York Times a similar flop was highly unlikely because while Solyndra’s tube-shaped module design represented a radical departure, 1366 had simply found a simpler and cheaper process, which it calls “direct wafer.”
Success for 1366 would be sweet for the administration in more ways than one. It would help justify the embattled loan-guarantee program, and also be an endorsement of the administration’s other programs to support renewables. DOE noted in its announcement that 1366 got $4 million from its Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program that seeds groundbreaking young companies, and then another $3 million from the department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
According to the DOE, 1366’s manufacturing process “reduces four separate manufacturing steps into a single, low cost continuous process and greatly reduces silicon waste by forming individual wafers directly from a bath of molten silicon.” The DOE said that at full production “the entire wafer formation process is completed in just 25 seconds when compared to conventional batch processing, which can take up to three days.”
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