April 07, 2011

GE Hits Milestone With Thin-Film Solar, Will Build Plant

By: by Eric Anderson, Business editor, Times Union


General Electric Co. Thursday morning announced it had achieved the highest publicly reported efficiency for a full-size thin film solar panel, and that it plans to build what would be the largest solar panel manufacturing plant in the United States.

The announcement comes just two days after the U.S. Department of Energy announced it would award $57.5 million to the University at Albany's College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering to establish a solar panel manufacturing consortium similar to the Sematech consortium in the late 1980s that boosted the nation's semiconductor industry.

GE at this time isn't part of that consortium, a company official said.

GE is expected to invest more than $600 million to create the plant, which will be capable of manufacturing 400 megawatts of solar panels annually. A megawatt is enough to power as many as 800 homes.

A site hasn't yet been chosen for the plant, a spokesman for GE said. But the Capital Region, where GE's research and development headquarters and its renewable energy headquarters both are based, could be in the running.

So is Arvada, Colo., where PrimeStar Solar is headquartered. GE also announced Thursday morning it had acquired the rest of the company; it previously had a majority equity stake. PrimeStar fabricated the new highly efficient panel. Arvada also is the site of the National Renewable Energy Lab.

Victor Abate, vice president of GE's renewable energy business, said the company hopes to decide on a location for its new plant in the next 90 to 100 days. Production of solar panels would begin by 2013, he said.

Site selection would be based on a number of factors, including the site's proximity to scientific and engineering talent, the economics of the site, such as the cost and availability of utilities, power, and water, the supply chain for necessary materials, and federal, state and local incentives.

"These are extremely large factories," Abate said.

GE said its thin film panel had achieved an efficiency of nearly 13 percent, meaning that it converted that amount of sunlight that the panel collected into electricity.

GE, last week announced it had completed the acquisition of power conversion company Converteam, which produces converters and related equipment to produce usable AC power.

GE said each 1 percent increase in solar panel efficiency translates into a 10 percent reduction in the cost of the system. Abate said cost was "the biggest barrier for the mainstream adoption of solar technology."

The company Thursday morning also said it has more than 100 megawatts of new orders for its thin film solar panels.

Thin film panels are constructed by depositing thin layers of photovoltaic material on a substrate, or base. In GE's case, the photovoltaic material was cadmium telluride.

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