Solar industry hits a speed bump

by Jordan Green

James Brannock (photo by Jordan Green)

Everybody’s talking about it — green jobs, green businesses, green initiatives… but is anybody actually doing anything about it?

You bet they are. Here in the Triad, we’re talking about solar panels and biofuel. UNCG has just opened its new dorm, Jefferson Suites, the university’s first green residence hall, and was named one of the nation’s top green universities by the Sierra Club.

We’ve got a green hotel, green lawncare services, a green building council and, in Greensboro, a built-in marketing campaign for all things of that particular hue.

In our annual Green Issue we look at some of the ways people are adapting to the green lifestyle, why they’re doing it and what they — and we — are getting out of it.

Many people hoped that the economic downturn that began in 2008 would jumpstart a transformation to a green economy, and that initiatives by the federal government would fuel job growth in that sector. James Brannock, a partner with Burlington-based Windsong Energy Solutions, is an example of the transition, but the results — both in job creation and alternative energy development, have been less than spectacular.

A general contractor with 25 years experience, Brannock’s focus was high-end residential construction. Some customers would ask about solar technology as a means to offset energy costs. Up until 2008, work was rolling in so steadily Brannock that, as he put it, “we didn’t have time to think about the alternatives.

“In 2008, we were supplying work for 50 to 100 subcontractors and employers,” Brannock continued. “We had the potential to supply a cash flow to 50 to 500 people.”

The construction industry hit the skids, and in April 2009, Brannock and a partner launched Windsong. During an interview last week at the Green Bean coffee shop in Greensboro, Brannock said he and his partner would like to hire two fulltime employees, but they haven’t had enough jobs to justify it.

Still, interest in solar energy is gradually building, and Brannock is confident that it’s a good long-term business investment for him.

“Two weeks ago, I was really confident we had more interest in solar,” he said. “When you get a bad announcement in solar, it has a ripple effect.

Your phone stops ringing.”

That’s exactly what happened.

Solyndra, a California company set up to manufacture solar modules that received a $535 million loan guarantee from the US Department of Energy, announced that it was suspending operations immediately, laying off 1,100 employees and filing for bankruptcy.

“Our biggest nightmare is this deal with Solyndra,” Brannock said. “I was listening to AM radio trying to find some beach music on my way over here today, and they were talking about it. When it starts getting on AM radio, that’s a big thing.”

Windsong holds a contract with a company in Raleigh that Brannock declined to name to install 432 modules manufactured by Solyndra on top of an 18,000 square foot warehouse. While the modules are probably in stock, without a warranty they are useless. And yet Windsong and its client have already made a significant investment in the project.

The innovation of Solynra’s product is that it is a cylinder rather than a panel, and it is self-ballasting, saving the need to punch holes in a roof.

Brannock said his company has already laid a reflective coat on the roof, which is designed to allow the cylinder to collect sunlight from all angles. The coat is more or less wasted, and Brannock is considering the unwelcome prospect of having to punch holes in the roof to attach traditional panels — something he said the client is not thrilled about.

“There are eight units on the project already,” Brannock said. “We’re not stuck with these. But what we are stuck with is a lot of specially made equipment…. As a small company, we’re in the middle of something the federal government backed, and this can put us out of business.

“The Solyndra deal gives a black eye to the solar industry, when you see pictures on the internet of the FBI padlocking the facility and hauling out the financial documents,” he added.

Yet Brannock does not believe that Solyndra’s collapse should not be taken as an indication that the solar industry, as a whole, is not financially viable.

After receiving a loan guarantee in 2009, Solyndra ran short on capital and approached the Department of Energy in late 2010 seeking to obtain emergency financing.

“Unfortunately, changes in the solar market have only accelerated in 2011, since the restructuring — making it much more difficult for the company to compete,” US Loan Program Office Executive Director Jonathan Silver told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Sept. 14. “Chinese companies have flooded the market with inexpensive panels, and Europe — currently the largest customer base for solar panels — has suffered from an economic crisis that has significantly reduced demand and forced cuts in subsidies for solar deployment that were important to Solyndra’s model. The result has been a further and unprecedented 42 percent drop in solar cell prices in the first eight months of 2011.”

Brannock said the cost of energy from coal-fired utilities is gradually going up because of deteriorating infrastructure while the cost of solar is gradually coming down, adding that the University of Central Florida projects that the trend lines will converge in seven to 10 years. When that happens, Brannock said, a significant number of residents and businesses will invest in solar modules to offset their energy costs.

On the whole, he’s confident about the future of the solar industry, although he said the lesson of the Solyndra debacle is that the jobs will come from installation rather than manufacturing.

“We will figure this thing out in Raleigh,” Brannock said.