Hanergy-owned Alta Devices laid off 250 employees without notice

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Hanergy-owned Alta Devices, the world record efficiency holder for single-junction solar cells, has furloughed almost all of its Sunnyvale, California staff without pay or notice, according to several of the almost 250 employees affected.

China’s Hanergy acquired Alta Devices (a maker of GaAs solar cells) for an undisclosed amount in 2013, along with Solibro, MiaSolé, and Global Solar Energy (all CIGS thin film PV) in a roll-up of some of last decade’s solar VC excesses.

LH Equity Research wrote at the time that the thin film acquisitions were “questionable” and made “with the sole purpose of being able to tell stories.” Solibro ceased operations last month.

Breaking efficiency records

Prior to its acquisition, Alta had raised more than $120 million from investors including KPCB, NEA, August Capital, Crosslink Capital, and Dow Chemical.

Alta made technical strides in flexible gallium-arsenide photovoltaics, setting records for the materials system and boasting an NREL-verified 29.1 percent cell efficiency for a single-junction solar cell without concentration. (The theoretical maximum solar cell efficiency limit for a single-junction device, the Shockley-Queisser limit, is 33.5 percent.)

Alta used an epitaxial lift-off (ELO) technique pioneered by Eli Yablonovitch that produced flexible layers of GaAs measuring 1 micron thick. The company had 150 kW of cell production capacity in Sunnyvale.

Despite its reportedly high costs, Alta was gaining customers in the UAV and space industry such as Boeing and AeroVironment and boasting annual revenue in the $10 million to $15 million range, according to a furloughed employee. Unfortunately, the burn rate was in the range of $45 million per year.

“What the hell happened to Hanergy?”

“Management went dark” in what appears to be a mass layoff and shutdown, according to a source who found it “surprising” and “didn’t see it coming — Hanergy just stopped funding us.” There is chatter of a search for funding to revive the company — but most of the employees are already in the wind. The last payroll was October 4.

There were four cars parked in Alta’s large and empty lot in the middle of Monday’s workday.

A source noted that Hanergy had given Alta five years they wouldn’t have otherwise had, while investing “quite a bit of money” in growing the headcount from 45 to 300 people.

Earlier reports on Hanergy in Financial Times “found some unconventional practices behind Hanergy Group’s once soaring fortunes. It has been racking up enviable revenues largely through sales between its listed subsidiary, HTF, and itself.”

A furloughed employee wondered, “What the hell happened to Hanergy? Where did all that cash go? Who owns them and is anyone going to jail?”

No pay, no notice?

Alta’s 250 employees lost wages, vacation time, sick time, and expense reimbursement when the plant was closed without notice. The U.S. WARN Act requires that an employer provide “notice 60 days in advance of covered plant closings and covered mass layoffs.” There are exceptions to the 60-day notice for “faltering companies” and “unforeseen business circumstances.”

We have reached out to Hanergy for comment but have not yet received a response.