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Calif. art work emerges from Solyndra's bankruptcy

Associated Press Modified: September 14, 2012 at 12:18 pm •  Published: September 14, 2012

BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — A small building tucked in the hills of Northern California shines with an unusual green glow from hundreds of glass tubes jutting out from one side toward nearby bushes.

Inside, the dark wooden shed contains an undulating wall filled with the translucent rods, each like a 3-foot-long drinking straw, sucking in a cool breeze and the rushing sounds from a nearby waterfall.

The work of experimental architecture is called the SOL Grotto — and Republicans are making fun of it as a symbol of a $528 million federal boondoggle, calling it the most expensive art project ever built.

The newly opened installation owes its 1,368 distinctive glass rods, and its name, to Solyndra — the failed solar company that received a hefty sum in federal loans before going bankrupt and becoming a favorite target for critics of President Barack Obama's energy policy.

When the Fremont-based solar company went under, it left behind millions of 39-inch glass tubes custom-made for its signature solar panels.

Husband and wife design partners Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello got the rods from a storage company that ended up stuck with thousands of pallets of them and created the installation in the Botanical Garden at the University of California, Berkeley.

"We thought they glowed so beautifully, we had to use them in the grotto," said San Fratello.

"These materials, instead of being disposed of, are being reused and recycled in a fantastic way," she added.

Like Solyndra, the installation has become an object of ridicule for critics, especially with the presidential election only months away.

The Republican-controlled House Energy and Commerce Committee put out a news release titled, "UC Berkeley's Solyndra Artwork Would Shatter Record for World's Most Expensive Piece."

Three years ago, the federal government made a $528 million loan guarantee to Solyndra as part of a stimulus program to promote renewable energy and create "green jobs."

In the spring of 2010, President Obama visited the company's newly built Silicon Valley campus, praising Solyndra for "leading the way toward a brighter and more prosperous future."

Then 15 months later, it filed for bankruptcy protection and laid off 1,100 workers.

"What we have here is a very expensive monument to failure," said Jeff Wald, a Republican Party official in Alameda County, standing outside the shuttered Solyndra building.

"It's disheartening to see the government wasting so much money," he said.

Attorneys for Solyndra did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Obama administration officials say the decision to give Solyndra a loan guarantee was not political. They say cheap imports from China, the collapse of the European market for solar panels and other economic changes doomed the California firm.

In a party-line vote Friday, House Republicans pushed through legislation that would phase out federal loan guarantees such as the one Solyndra received. Democrats call the "No More Solyndras Act" an election-year stunt. The bill has no chance of advancing in the Democratic-led Senate.

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