The Santa Clara solar-panel manufacturer Miasole is about to be sold overseas, and possibly dissolved. Its technology is an innovative threat to some existing manufacturers. In fact Miasole’s thin-film manufacturing technique, which can reduce the amount of expensive materials needed by more than 90 percent from conventional solar cells, is a breakthrough technology that will be lost to the United States without immediate action.
Miasole is a very real, productive company, with a 150 million-watt-per-year production facility in California, and more than 60 megawatts already deployed in commercial operation. Miasole is, or was, the third largest thin-film solar energy producer in the world, and has achieved an industry-leading 16 percent efficient solar panels.
Miasole’s planned rollout of thin and flexible solar cells could revolutionize installation and expand market opportunities, further reducing costs. These achievements are based on their patented production process, in which the layers of the thin film are deposited onto a 3-foot-wide sheet of stainless steel foil as it passes around the periphery of large circular production machines.
The U.S. Department of Energy has launched an “Apollo project” called Sunshot, which is built around science, policy and deployment efforts to achieve $1 per watt solar power by 2020. Miasole’s technology is already on track to produce solar cell modules that would achieve parity for solar power with current commercial power sources.
Despite these successes, Miasole is having difficulty finding buyers for its product, due in large part to Chinese companies selling below cost. Thus, even after raising over half a billion dollars of private investment, the company is shutting down and is slated to be sold to a Chinese solar company at a fire-sale price of $30 million.
Forestalling this loss of U.S. technology requires, first, action to secure U.S.ownership of Miasole’s patented production technology and, then to restart manufacturing by Miasole and other competitive U.S. solar companies.
The sale of Miasole overseas can be reviewed by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States — a federal interagency committee that reviews the national security implications of foreign investments. Particularly valuable U.S.companies can be assessed for their value as engines of growth and, we argue, of energy independence. The CIFUS committee is chaired by the secretary of the Treasury, and includes the secretaries of Energy, Homeland Security, State, and the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Members of California’s congressional delegation should request a CIFUS investigation now.
To secure Miasole technology, the Department of Energy loan program could make a loan against the Miasole patents to hold them in the United States.
To restart the company, the U.S. government could use the huge purchasing power of state and federal agencies, in particular the Department of Defense and the Department of Interior. These agencies have plans to install billions of watts of renewable energy capacity, whose costs would be substantially reduced given the currently low and projected even lower Miasole module costs.
And finally, the Commerce Department has called for tariffs — in the range of 30 percent — on solar panels imported from manufacturers whose practices have damaged the U.S. solar industry. A natural place to utilize those tariff funds would be to subsidize domestic purchase of solar panels — including those from Miasole — which could be offered to homeowners around the country at low cost. We would thus be investing in domestic job creation and implementing a real form of energy independence.