Steve Leone, Associate Editor, RenewableEnergyWorld.com
October 31, 2011 | 58 Comments
New Hampshire, U.S.A. -- The embattled Department of Energy has another failed loan on its hands and the Republican-led House Energy Committee has new ammunition as it continues to set its sights on the Obama Administration's green jobs initiatives.
Beacon Power, like Solyndra, was one of the first loans to close under the Department of Energy’s 1705 loan guarantee program. Now, much like the failed solar panel manufacturer, the Massachusetts-based flywheel storage company has filed for bankruptcy protection and set off another ripple in the growing controversy over the federal program.
On Sunday, Beacon Power, which received a $43 million loan guarantee to support the construction of a 20-megawatt flywheel energy storage plant in Stephentown, N.Y., filed for Chapter 11. The flywheel technology at the New York facility was used for load leveling. Essentially, grid operators could dump power into the storage plant when they had too much and pull it back out when they needed more. It remains unclear what will happen to the facility or the technology inside the plant following the bankruptcy.
What is certain is that the latest bankruptcy will add to growing Republican skepticism over the program itself and, for some, whether renewable technologies can ever boost the struggling American economy.
“This latest failure is a sharp reminder that DOE has fallen well short of delivering the stimulus jobs that were promised, and now taxpayers find themselves millions of more dollars in the hole,” said Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., in a written statement. “Unfortunately for the American taxpayers, I am deeply concerned that other DOE programs could follow which goes to the heart of the President's flawed economic program.”
For those inside the renewable energy industry, Sunday’s news was met with the realization that this would deepen the problems for the Obama Administration. But it also came with concern that the highly political nature of the program wouldn’t allow for any distinction between the Solyndra and the Beacon Power bankruptcies.
“Bankruptcies are always very company-specific,” said Robert Lahey, a legislative analyst with Ardour Capital. “They’re all very different. If [Beacon Power’s bankruptcy] had happened by itself, it wouldn’t be nearly as big a news.”
According to Lahey, Beacon Power, unlike Solyndra, has valuable assets to help pay off its loan. At $43 million, the loan itself, is far less than one-tenth of the size of the guarantee to Solyndra. Beacon Power also has technology that is worth much more on the market. Solyndra’s bankruptcy was complicated in that it had a facility and manufacturing equipment designed solely to produce an uncompetitive solar panel. For Beacon Power, the loan went to build a plant with technology that is currently in operation and generating revenue.
But these two loans were alike in that they went to higher risk operations geared more toward research and development. The Department of Energy’s loan program faced early criticism that it was selecting projects that had an interesting technology, but a risky financial future. Toward the end of the program, which expired on Sept. 30, loan guarantees were closed almost exclusively on power generating facilities backed by power purchase agreements. Most in the industry have felt that these types of projects were far less risky from the start.
For Beacon Power, the problems did not stem from the DOE loan, said Ardour Capital Director of Research Walter Nasdeo. The problem was that it could not find the financing to build any subsequent plants. The biggest questions may revolve around the future of the flywheel technology, and what steps are needed to move it forward.
"The question now is, 'Is this technology enough to build a high-potential company around? Or is it better suited to be a product line for a larger company?'" asked Nasdeo.
Sunday’s news came as new developments emerged surrounding the loan program and the Solyndra investigation. There is growing indication that the House energy subcommittee, led by Stearns, will subpoena internal White House communications regarding the Solyndra bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has ordered an independent review of all loans made to energy companies by the Department of Energy.