Despite state loans, Lowell solar company goes bankrupt

A Lowell-based solar technology company that received $1.5 million in state loans when Mitt Romney was governor has filed for bankruptcy, opening the presumptive Republican presidential nominee to charges of hypocrisy.

Konarka Technologies revealed Friday that it had filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy protection and would fire its 80-person staff and liquidate its assets.

Romney has chided President Obama for investing $535 million in a different solar company that failed and insisted governments should not pick winners and losers in the private sector. He held a press conference at the Fremont, Calif. headquarters of that company, Solyndra, last Thursday, saying “free enterprise to the president means taking money from the taxpayers and giving it freely to his friends.”


In January 2003, shortly after taking office in Massachusetts, Romney held another press conference -- at Konarka, where he announced a plan to loan $24 million from the state’s renewable energy trust fund to startups with the potential to create jobs.

Get This Week in Politics in your inbox:
A weekly recap of the top political stories from The Globe, sent right to your email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

“The trust fund has been growing for years,” Romney said at the time, “and I believe now is the time to refocus its assets in such a manner that it can become a major economic springboard for the Commonwealth by focusing on job creation in the renewable energy sector.”

The Obama campaign quickly pounced on the news of Konarka’s bankruptcy.

“Every day we see a new example of Mitt Romney’s hypocrisy,” Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said Saturday. “Just one day after he pulled a political stunt outside Solyndra, we learned even more about his record of picking winners and losers in Massachusetts when one of the companies he gave a loan to went bankrupt.”

On the day of Romney’s visit to Solyndra, Smith defended the president, saying “both Republican and Democratic administrations advanced Solyndra’s application, and the company was widely praised as successful and innovative both before and after receiving the Department of Energy loan guarantee.”


She could have been describing Konarka. With a Nobel Prize-winning co-founder and promising business plan, Konarka raised more than $170 million in private capital investments and $20 million in government grants, according to its website.

Under the Bush administration, Konarka received a $1.6 million US Army contract in 2005 and a $3.6 million award from the Department of Energy in 2007. Under the Obama administration, Konarka was one of 183 clean energy companies nationwide that got a total of $2.3 billion in tax credits as part of the 2009 stimulus.

Konarka made thin-film solar panels called “Power Plastic,” which could be affixed to the fabric of a messenger bag or a soldier’s tent and used to charge electronic devices. The company survived for more than a decade and paid back its loan from Massachusetts.

But a 2010 Globe report on Konarka noted the company struggled to market its products because the thin-film panels had short lifespans -- three to five years -- and poor efficiency. While traditional solar panels could convert 15 to 20 percent of available light into electricity, Konarka’s Power Plastic could make use of only 3 or 4 percent.

“At that efficiency, it’s really just a science experiment,” Eric Wesoff, now the editor-in-chief of Greentech Media, told the Globe at the time.

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.