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GE To Delay Colorado Thin-film Manufacturing Plant

The thin-film competition keeps getting thinner. A week ago, Colorado-based Abound Solar announced it was closing its Longmont facility and scrapping plans for a much larger operation in Indiana.

Now, energy giant GE said it is putting plans for its Aurora, Colo., plant on hold for 18 months in reaction to the continued drop in crystalline silicon solar panels. When the company announced its plans to jump into American thin-film manufacturing nine months ago, it did so in grand fashion. Company officials unveiled a plan for a 400-megawatt (MW) facility that would churn out cadmium telluride (CdTe) panels, the same thin-film technology deployed by Abound. It was an American manufacturing success story born out of Primestar, which GE purchased in 2011.

GE wasn’t preparing for a soft launch. It was pushing ahead hard and fast with the goal of becoming a U.S.-based solar manufacturing leader. To that end, it laid out a plan to introduce a module at 14 percent efficiency or higher and that the product would hit the commercial market by 2013. Now, company officials say they will delay the new plant so they can work on beefing up the efficiency. That was the same approach announced by Abound, when it said this winter that it would temporarily shut down its Colorado lines to work on efficiency. Four months later the company announced it would file for bankruptcy

So now, U.S. manufacturing has lost two of its biggest prizes — one a startup and the other an industry leader. In addition to the 400 MW the GE plant was to produce, it would also have created about 350 new jobs. The 640-MW plant that Abound received a Department of Energy loan guarantee to build in Tipton, Ind., represents another 1,000 jobs.

GE, to be sure, is a stable, diversified company. It also remains a player and investor in many renewable technologies. It’s proven to be a company willing to take a chance on technologies that it feels can win a significant segment of the market. Many will surely see the announcement as a lack of confidence in thin film going forward.

The company exuded confidence nine months ago, just as the industry was bracing for trade action against Chinese crystalline silicon panels that were driving down costs and profit margins for American manufacturers. 

“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 last October. “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.” 

While the company is saying that it will forge ahead, the delay illustrates once again how rapidly the solar industry is changing.

Image: Delay sign via Shutterstock

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