Tuesday, November 01, 2011

How Many More Solyndras?

Another firm that received a loan guarantee from the Department of Energy has just filed for bankruptcy. Beacon Power had drawn down $39.1 million of the $43 million authorized by the DOE for the construction of its 20 MW energy storage facility in Stephenstown, NY, but was still operating at a loss and unable to find additional backing. As was the case for Solyndra, the DOE's "loan guarantee" actually took the form of a direct loan from the Federal Financing Bank, an arm of the US Treasury, rather than from a commercial bank or other private-sector lender. If two data points can indicate a pattern, the one here reflects poorly on venture capital decisions made solely by government officials lacking any stake in the eventual outcome of the investment. Real venture capitalists make bad bets, too, but with an entirely different degree of accountability.

The Beacon failure is especially disheartening, because it involves the application of energy storage to grid services, which many believe is crucial for integrating large increments of intermittent renewable energy--mainly wind and solar power--into our electricity supply. In particular, Beacon's use of flywheels, rapidly rotating disks capable of storing and releasing large amounts of energy quickly, looked like a promising alternative to chemical batteries. I've long been intrigued by this technology, which is also being applied to race cars. Beacon's problems appear to be both technical and financial, with two of the company's flywheels having failed catastrophically since startup due to manufacturing defects, and the business model generating insufficient revenue to support the company's obligations.

Unlike Solyndra, the DOE's investment in Beacon Power might not turn out to be a complete loss, though I don't share the confidence of the DOE's spokesman that the "valuable collateral asset" will enable the government to recover the entire sum it lent Beacon. With an operating facility and ongoing revenues, it's possible that the firm's liabilities could be reorganized in such a way than it could emerge from bankruptcy as a viable entity. However, if its reported second-quarter revenue of $525,000 is indicative, it's very hard to see that either the business or the underlying assets could be worth more than a fraction of the $39 million federal loan liability, let alone their $72 million book value. "Haircuts" seem to be in vogue, and I'm guessing that Uncle Sam will take one on Beacon, in order to realize any value at all from the deal.

I'm relieved that the administration has finally ordered an independent review of the entire loan guarantee program, though it's a little late for that to accomplish much more at this stage than bringing additional problems to light. The main 1705 loan guarantee program is out of money and unlikely to receive further appropriations, at least until after the 2012 election. Meanwhile, another energy-related stimulus beneficiary, advanced-battery maker Ener1, was just de-listed from NASDAQ last Friday. The best coda on this whole situation may come from the blog of VC David Gold, who wrote yesterday that the administration's cleantech stimulus is turning out to be "Bad Policy, Bad Politics, and Bad for Cleantech." I'll bet there are many executives at cleantech firms who now wish they had never heard of Treasury grants and DOE loan guarantees.

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