As the debate still rages on what happened with Solydra I thought I would weigh in with my opinion. I have never had the benefit of visiting that plant but have seen countless times the stock footage of President Obama's visit when things were going well. What you see in that footage was a lot of production cells with industrial robots moving solar panels through the various process stages. What you see in that picture correlates very well with what I saw when I did have the benefit of a detailed plant tour at Spire Solar in the fall of 2009.
Spire Solar is in the business of selling production equipment used in the manufacturing of solar cells/panels. Solar panels start with small cells that are tested and then progressively wired into larger and larger arrays in order to increase the voltage and current that is produced. Each circuit group is limited by the weakest cell in the group and so there are design trade offs to maximize efficiency and lower costs. The solar cell arrays are then connected together and encased in the panels that protect them from the environments they will be installed in. One last test involves exposing the newly manufactured panel with a calibrated amount of light that is evenly made across the entire panel. The panel output is carefully measured and the panel is graded. Some panels are much better than others.
So this leaves the question of what happened to Solyndra and why they could not compete with Chinese manufacturers and I think there are several factors that we should look at.
Industrial Automation: Solar Panel manufacturing almost demands automation. Manual processes risk contamination (think fingerprints) of the solar cells and weak cells mean less efficient and lower quality panels. Therefore, the labor head count and amount of automation should have been similar between Solyndra and its Chinese competitors. In an efficient process, the difference in labor costs should be a factor but not a show stopper.
Materials: This should be about equal between China and the US as the silicon materials are not exotic or in limited supply or any other global factor other than perhaps having a lot more semiconductor Fab facilities in the APAC region than the US.
Management: This I'm not sure about. How committed was the company to making solar panels as opposed to getting money and spending it under the guise of being a "green" business. I'll let the congressional investigation solve this one but it does seem clear that contributed capital was not efficiently applied to the facility and design/creation of the panels and processes to create them.
Power Costs: I am fairly certain that the cost of electricity to run a highly automated solar panel plant is significant and, costs are likely much higher in California than say China. This also by itself would not be a showstopper.
Machine Safety: Looking back at the stock video of the Obama visit to Solyndra you see that the automated robots have safety enclosures and features in order to bring them into compliance with OSHA and/or other standards such as EN ISO13849-1 and EN/IEC 62061. In our recent report on Machine Automatic Safeguarding we saw APAC as a smaller but growing market in that there is a lot of room for safety improvement - particularly in China. Machine Safeguarding adds expense and usually lowers efficiency to a sight degree. Let's consider this as a burdon for Solyndra that its Chinese competitors don't have and call it at that. A showstopper? I don't think so.
Economics: Two things are mainly at work here, a glut of solar panels and a decrease in demand as government subsidies dry out and the recent recession makes money tighter. Then, we have the fact that China is holding its currency down and that is a significant factor. If customers are buying on price alone and not taking panel quality and grade/efficiency into consideration this does put companies like Solyndra at a disadvantage.
In summary, I think it was not any one or two factors that caused Solyndra to fail. It was likely to be the combination of all of them happening at the same time for an extended period that did it. Certainly there are a number of valuable lessons to learn and business/economic factors that have to be corrected.