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GE on Jump Into Solar: 'We're Confident and We're Scaling Up'

House Republican Cliff Stearns touched off a battle with the White House when he recently told NPR that the United States "can't compete with China to make solar panels."

Apparently, GE wasn’t listening.

The global energy giant announced late Thursday that it is officially jumping into the solar manufacturing race by building a 400-megawatt facility in Aurora, Colo. The company says the plant will create more than 350 jobs in Colorado, and will begin rolling out cadmium telluride thin-film solar panels in 2012. There will be 100 additional jobs created at its research center in upstate New York.

The size of the facility would be larger than any existing American solar plant and it would put it in direct competition in the thin-film market with American company First Solar, which has its largest operation in Malaysia, and Solar Frontier, which opened a 1-GW plant this year in Japan.

A Show of Confidence

More than anything, this could be seen as an indication that boardrooms have a higher degree of confidence in solar as bankable in the short-term than do many of the legislators who have questioned the industry in the wake of the Solyndra bankruptcy.

“With so much capacity out there, the only companies that can compete are the ones with the right technology and the right cost structure,” said Matt Guyette, GE’s strategy leader for renewables during a conference call Friday. “There’s a lot of companies out there with the wrong cost structure. We see it with their quarterly reports and some of the bankruptcies in the past few months.

“We’ve been watching the space for over 10 years, and we’ve been investing in technologies, and the reason we have not built this plant before is that the technology was not at a point where we were confident that we could compete. We’re there now. We’re confident and we’re scaling up.”

GE has been a big investor in solar technologies, including eSolar’s concentrating solar power business. Earlier this year, GE completed the acquisition of PrimeStar, whose thin-film technology came from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado. The company has also emerged as a leader in the wind business. Now the company, whose technology supplies 25 percent of all electricity globally, is putting its solar stake in the ground on U.S. soil.

“We expect to take the solar technology and drive the same type of growth we’ve seen in our wind business, which was taking a really non-existent business that was struggling in 2002 into a $6 billion-plus business,” said Guyette, who added that GE has 27 gigawatts of installed capacity globally in renewable energy.

The product

The company said it is working to come out with a larger and lighter panel with conversion efficiency goal of 14 percent or greater at the module level, and that the panels should hit the commercial market by 2013.

Guyette said the company expects to be able to compete with Chinese polysilicon module manufacturers as well as other thin-film makers in both established and growing markets. While GE said it isn’t ruling out the residential market, the company is clearly looking to move into the large-scale and commercial rooftop spaces that are developing quickly in the United States. Aside from Europe, the expected boom in the Asian market could drive sales and competition. GE, already with deep roots globally, could be positioning to move quickly in these regions.

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