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A new life for Solyndra's solar tubes

Posting in Architecture

Millions of cylindrical glass tubes--the signature component of Solyndra's solar panels--were abandoned and presumably destined for destruction after the startup filed for bankruptcy. But not all of the glass tubes went unused.

At least 1,368 of the discarded rods have been recast into SOL Grotto, an architectural sculpture created by Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello and installed at the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley.

The glass tubes were donated by Gene Ashley, the owner of JIT Transportation, which had a contract with Solyndra to transport and store its products. When Solyndra filed last year for bankruptcy, JIT Transportation was stuck with 8 million of the company's 24 million glass tubes.

A bankruptcy court determined the glass tubes no longer had any value, leaving Ashley with a space-consuming burden.

"The first time I went out there his warehouse and the yard around it was like a city of glass," San Fratello wrote me in recent email.

The art installation is located along Strawberry Creek in the California Native section of the botanical gardens as part of the Natural Discourse exhibit.

Thousands of glass tubes jut out from a wooden structure, which acts as a conduit and brings in light, cool air and sounds of a waterfall from outside.

Ambient and direct light causes the tubes to change color throughout the day. Visitors can peer through the tubes to get a kaleidoscope-like view to the outside.

The intent of the art installation is to create a space of solitude and bring visitors close to nature, according to the architects' website. The installation, which also aims to "explores Solyndra's role as a company Sh*t out of luck," has become highly politicized and, for some, a symbol of wasteful federal spending.

Solyndra was the recipient of a flagship $535 million loan guarantee under a federal loan program created during the Bush Administration and eventually funded by Obama Administration as part of a stimulus program aimed to create jobs and promote renewable energy. About $527 million of the loan was distributed to Solyndra, even after concerns about the company's financial condition.

The company's Chapter 11 plan, which was released in July, estimates that $24 million of the $527 million will be repaid.

The bankruptcy set off a firestorm of criticism, largely directed to the Obama Administration, which signed off on the loan guarantee. The fallout from the bankruptcy has largely quieted down in recent months. However, it hasn't faded away entirely, and likely won't in the remaining months leading up to the presidential election.

Last week, House Republicans passed the "No More Solyndras Act," legislation that phases out the Energy Department's loan guarantee program. Passage sends the bill to the Senate, which is expected to ignore it.

Photos: Matthew Millman

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— By on September 17, 2012, 8:00 PM PST

Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure