DOE Loan Guarantees for Solar Keep Comin’, Now SoloPower

Every week now, it seems like the Department of Energy has offered a new loan guarantee for the next-generation of energy companies. On Thursday, the lucky winner is thin-film solar panel maker SoloPower. The DOE says it has offered SoloPower a conditional commitment for a $197 million loan guarantee to retrofit and expand its thin-film panel plant in Wilsonville, Ore. (The Chief of the DOE Loan Program, Jonathan Silver, will be speaking at our Green:Net 2011 event on April 21 in San Francisco).

In terms of solar-themed loan guarantees, the DOE has now offered up a half-dozen. Last month, the DOE offered a $967 million loan guarantee for the Agua Caliente Solar project, a 290-MW, photovoltaic facility that will be built in Yuma County, Ariz. Last summer, the DOE offered close to $2 billion in loan guarantees to Spanish solar company Abengoa Solar and Colorado-based solar panel maker Abound Solar. BrightSource also received a $1.37 billion loan guarantee to build out its Ivanpah solar project, which is the first new solar thermal power plant being built in California’s deserts in 20 years. And thin-film solar maker Solyndra scored the first loan guarantee out there.

SoloPower’s news also comes on the heels of the DOE offering a $343 million loan guarantee for a transmission line for renewable power in Nevada this week, and $571 million in loan guarantees to biofuel producers last month. In total, the DOE has chosen 19 clean energy projects for loan guarantees and offered conditional commitments for $18 billion in loan guarantees.

Loan guarantees essentially serve as a promise by the government to make good on a loan if the company can’t, and typically enable better interest rates and lower costs than would otherwise be available to a company for project financing. As DOE Loan Chief Jonathan Silver told us recently, it takes about six months “soup to nuts” to get these applications processed and finalized.

These types of solar projects make sense for the DOE loan guarantee program, because these are the first projects from some of the young solar firms in the U.S. The idea is to get a company like BrightSource or SoloPower across the so-called “valley of death,” between proving out the technology and building out and scaling up actual plants. Solar projects also offer construction jobs and good press. SoloPower’s plant in Oregon is expected to produce 400 MW of solar panels per year, and create about 500 permanent jobs and 270 construction jobs.

The DOE has other plans for cutting the cost of solar beyond loan guarantees, including its recently announced SunShot program, which will offer $27.3 million to nine companies. The end goal of all the DOE solar plans is to cut the installation cost of a large-scale solar power project, from equipment to labor and a built-in profit margin for developers, to $1 per watt without government subsidies by 2020.

At installation costs of $1 per watt, the cost to produce solar power will fall to roughly $0.06 per watt, making it comparable to the wholesale rates of power produced by coal or natural gas. Currently, solar power plants built for utilities have cost from $3.50 per watt to more than $7 per watt, depending on the size and whether the solar panels are installed on the ground or the roofs of commercial buildings, according to GTM Research.

SoloPower has developed a flexible solar panel made of copper-indium-gallium-selenide cells, which represent the next generation of thin-film solar technology. The majority of the solar panels on the market use crystalline silicon solar cells, which are fragile and rely on glass to protect them. Thin-film solar panels, on the other hand, contain ultra-thin layers of alternative versions of silicon or other semiconductors and don’t necessarily need glass.

In addition to SoloPower’s new government support, the company raised quite a bit of money from investors. Last month, SoloPower closed $51.58 million in equity and security from investors including Crosslink Capital, Hudson Clean Energy Partners, and Norwegian firm Convexa. SoloPower raised nearly $45 million in debt financing about a year ago, according to a regulatory filing. And back in 2008, Venture Wire reported that SoloPower had raised a grand ol’ $200 million to scale manufacturing up to a 100-megawatt-per-year plant (via VentureBeat), though Solopower never confirmed that round size with me.

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