Good Life

California solar company makes its way without subsidies

After laying off 40 percent of its local staff and phasing out a once promising line of business, Roseville's Solar Power Inc. did the unthinkable last year: It returned nearly $25 million in federal stimulus funding.

The solar industry has come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks with the collapse of Solyndra, the Fremont manufacturer that received $535 million in federal loan guarantees.

But for every Solyndra, there are scores of companies like Solar Power Inc. that have gotten by without federal funding. They provide a counterpoint to the growing criticism that the solar industry requires heavy subsidies.

"Solyndra has given the industry a black eye," said Solar Power CEO Stephen Kircher.

"I think it's huge disservice to the solar industry that the public now thinks that solar is too expensive, isn't going to work, that it's black magic."

As Solyndra's bankruptcy filing indicates, the nation's solar industry is facing a huge shakeout. Plummeting prices for solar panels, low-cost competition from China, huge upfront costs for consumers and a lack of funding for large-scale projects are just some of the barriers to the industry's growth.

Kircher sat down with The Bee last week at the company's new headquarters in Roseville's Johnson Ranch community for a wide-ranging interview about the solar industry and recent developments at the company.

Solar Power – which is in the middle of changing its name to SPI Solar – was founded in 2005 and is best known for high-profile projects such as a rooftop installation at Staples Center in Los Angeles and a solar farm at Aerojet in Folsom.

But like many companies in the renewable energy sector, Solar Power has struggled, losing money in each of the last four years.

The company's stock has gone from a high of about $4.50 in October 2007 to a low of 18 cents last October. It's now trading around 30 cents per share.

"We've proven in the past that we have good developers and good sales people," Kircher said. "What we've been unable to do is make money with that."

That's about to change thanks to Solar Power's new partnership with LDK Solar Inc.

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