Santa Rosa's newest solar array appears to have a lot going for it.
The panels are highly efficient, installation was a snap, and best of all it didn't cost city taxpayers anything.
There's just one problem: the 345 panels were made by a company with dirtiest name in the clean energy business — Solyndra.
The Fremont-based solar manufacturer is now bankrupt. Repayment of its $535 million federal loan is in doubt, an FBI investigation is underway and its state-of-the-art facility in the East Bay that once held promise as a generator of green manufacturing jobs is shuttered.
Santa Rosa officials say the selection of Solyndra's unique panels was made in January, well before the company's financial troubles became apparent. The company's technology was sound, its costs competitive and the panels well-suited for the white roof on which installation is nearly complete.
But the company's demise leaves the city wondering who will back the 25-year warranty for the panels. Solyndra promised refunds for products that fail to perform at 80 percent of their power rating.
"We are a little anxious about any performance warranty and who will be picking that up as they restructure under bankruptcy," said Dell Tredinnick, project development manager for the city's utilities department.
The array went up late last month on the roof of the administration building at the city's Laguna Treatment Plant. It is expected to go into service soon, after some interior wiring work is complete, said Colin Close, research and program coordinator for the city utilities department.
Unlike the other arrays at the treatment plant, which were funded through water and sewer rates, the Solyndra product was made possible through a $1.5 million Department of Energy grant bolstering energy efficiency and conservation projects. The money was part of the $840 billion federal stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
So, U.S. taxpayers were supporting Solyndra on both ends, subsidizing its operations through a federal loan guarantee, and aiding its sales with stimulus funds. Despite these subsidies, analysts have said the company couldn't compete as the recession and increasing overseas production created a glut of low-cost silicon solar panels.
Close said it's merely a coincidence that the city spent its stimulus funds on a solar panel whose manufacturer also received stimulus funds. The Department of Energy, which managed the grant, was "hands off" about what technology the city chose, and did nothing to steer the city toward Solyndra's products, Close said.
"It would be very interesting to see how many cities did solar and how many of them went with Solyndra," Close said.
Santa Rosa spent its $1.5 million on more than a single solar array. The city has funded or plans to fund seven energy-related projects with the money.
The other city projects included: installing electric vehicle charging stations, funding a regional building retrofit program, improving signal lights on Santa Rosa Avenue, installing high-efficiency street lights, offering rebates for weatherizing low-income housing and studying the city's greenhouse gas emissions.
The total cost of the Solyndra project was $348,477, or 23 percent of the grant. The cost included an engineering analysis of the administration building's roof to determine the load it could bear.
The 35,000-pound limit became one of the key reasons for the decision to go with the lightweight Solyndra array.
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