OptiSolar Crashes: Lessons for Greentech

There were several startups that became poster children of the dot com era, representing bad choices, millions lost, and dozens of employees hired and fired in the blink of an eye: Pets.com, Webvan, and Kozmo.com, to name a few. The newer cleantech boom has recently started to deliver some potential candidates to fit that bill, too: Tesla, Imperium Renewables — and as of Friday, solar maker OptiSolar.

This morning, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that OptiSolar has halted any manufacturing it had started and is cutting almost all of its staff. That’s after selling off a $400 million crown jewel solar project contract with PG&E (s PCG) to First Solar (s FSLR) earlier this month, and cutting nearly half of its staff back in January.

The fallen dotcom firms of the past made a variety of mistakes, like building services no one was ready for yet (Pets.com and Webvan), or making margins so slim that the business wasn’t sustainable (kozmo.com: free delivery of discounted goods in an hour and no tips!). But the faults of the struggling cleantech firms have been largely both underestimating how expensive it is to manufacture “stuff” and not being able to reach a large manufacturing scale quick enough before the credit crunch hit. It seemed as if OptiSolar had announced it was building one of the largest solar photovoltaic projects ever built at 550 MW, before it had even disclosed its funders or explained how its technology was superior to any competitors.

The company develops amorphous silicon thin-film solar PV, which is by no means a next-generation technology. OptiSolar certainly never explained its competitive edge to us. We set up a meeting with OptiSolar’s VP of corporate communications, Alan Bernheimer, back in October at the Solar Power International conference in San Diego, and at the time we were determined to learn more. We didn’t learn much and we wrote back then:

So what makes OptiSolar so special that it snagged a historic deal in the face of a lot of competition? We’re still not sure, but Bernheimer says their ability to produce their thin film photovoltaics at a low cost comes from “automated manufacturing,” and vertical integration of the company — including everything from installer to manufacturer. “PV is going to become a commodity product, you can’t win on just technology alone,” says Bernheimer. Neither OptiSolar, nor PG&E, will divulge the pricing of the power purchase agreement.

It must have been sheer desperation on PG&E’s part, struggling to meet its state renewable portfolio standard, that encouraged the utility to make a contract with such a young company with such massive ambitions. As we indicated, it was probably contracts like that that in turn motivated PG&E to start investing in its own solar projects — as a means of insurance.

Ultimately, the signs were all there for OptiSolar’s crash. The company’s ambition was so over the top compared to its size and it was betting everything on being able to easily raise money to scale up. It reportedly raised close to $200 million and needed to raise a whole lot more. Then the credit crunch hit — and the rest is history.