GE puts 400MW CdTe footprint in CO

Aurora, CO will be the site of GE’s proposed CdTe panel factory, which upon full production in 2013 will be the nation’s largest. But how will it compare with FSLR?

October 14, 2011 – GE has picked Aurora, CO as the site of its forthcoming 400MW CdTe panel factory in the US, said to be bigger than 11 football fields with enough annual panel output to power 80,000 homes. Production equipment install is slated to begin in Jan. 2012, “faster than anticipated,” with first panels expected to come off the lines sometime in 2012 followed by “commercial availability” in 2013. The new proposed 400MW panel operation would be (for the moment) the country’s largest when online.

Note that Aurora, Colorado is next door to Arvada (both are suburbs of Denver), which is home to PrimeStar Solar, GE’s CdTe R&D partner which it acquired back in April as the crown jewel of its $600M+ investment in solar technology, which also including multidozen-MW supply deals with NextEra and Inergy (at the time GE claimed it had 100MW of combined backlog for panels, inverters, and power plants).

In a statement, Victor Abate, VP of GE?s Renewable Energy business, said the company and its CO-based solar team “were able to achieve record efficiencies in our solar panels in record time.” PrimeStar’s top mark back in the spring was a NREL-confirmed record 12.8% efficiency (aperture area) panel on its 30MW line.

Any talk about CdTe solar PV has to be compared to market leader First Solar. In its fiscal 2Q11 (released in August) FSLR claimed it produced 483MW of 11.7%-efficient panels at a total module production cost of $0.75/W — and what it claims is a “ground-mount standard cost” of $0.99/W. So those are the benchmarks GE has to contend with.

Update 10/14: We spoke with Danielle Merfeld, director of GE’s solar technology platform. She offered some more specifics about the new plant, the CdTe technology itself, and what it’ll take to compete against entrenched competition:

– The site selection was narrowed to ~10 states, and ultimately down to two: Colorado and New York, both homes to GE’s centers of excellence. The biggest driver in picking the plant location was “how fast we could get up and running.” In the end CO had precisely what GE was looking for: a building with the right buildout environment (an existing distribution center/warehouse), less than an hour from the local center of excellence (on the other side of Denver).

– About half of GE’s aforementioned $600M solar investment will go into developing this new facility. And GE only received about $15M in state incentives (none from the federal government), with those monies  focused solely on job training and construction.

– First equipment will arrive “in a couple of months” (ballpark Jan. 2012), starting with the thin-film deposition tool. “We make all of our own critical deposition tools,” she said, giving a nod to the company’s team in Michigan. Other systems might be sourced e.g. for conveyance, “but critical to the deposition window and active semiconducting layers for absorber, it’s all on in-house equipment.”

– The efficiency has been improved slightly since April, now at an NREL-confirmed (aperture) 13.1%. She noted that the previous mark of 12.8% aperture efficiency translated into a 12.5% end module measurement. For the better results, she cited improvements in the window layers and film stack (without revealing details of the actual film stack) as giving “more runway” toward higher efficiencies than a conventional CdTe process. The hope is to have this improved technology ramping in the new CO fab, depending on what has to change in the manufacturing flow (e.g. if more or upgraded tools are required).

– 400MW in CO is only a start. “To be leaders, there’s going to have to be a multi-GW expansion,” she said, citing previous comments from Victor Abate, GE’s VP for renewables, about plans to scale this business in the same mold as GE’s wind business (now ~$6B). And that means “many, many more factories,” and eyeing locations internationally depending on where the markets are and future buildout logistics.

– First Solar and its ~$0.75/W manufacturing cost is the default metric not only for CdTe but solar in general. Merfeld wouldn’t say where GE is at in manufacturing costs or even where it hopes to get to, but acknowledged that the cost/W metric is “absolutely paramount” and “we’re very aware of where First Solar is,” but that “we wouldn’t get into the business if we can’t build margins and compete.”

Artist?s rendering of GE?s planned solar plant in Aurora, Colorado. (Source: GE Energy)

Naturally the news of the new GE plant was accompanied by the usual handshaking proclamations from politicos:

– CO Gov. John Hickenlooper: “This is great news for Colorado and further proof that our state is emerging as a center of innovation. GE?s move to Aurora takes advantage of Colorado?s clean energy resources and a collaborative business environment that is committed to helping the company succeed. We look forward to supporting GE as it fosters its technical innovation and research capabilities in Colorado.”

– US Sen. Mark Udall: “I?m confident that this is only the beginning?I look forward to working with GE and its partners to build its presence and create more good-paying jobs in our state. They?ve recognized what I?ve said for years: Colorado can lead the world in creating clean energy jobs and putting people to work.”

– US Sen. Michael Bennett: “This plant will create over 350 jobs and reinforces Colorado’s leading role in renewable energy. This solar technology was originally developed at NREL and further highlights how this world-class lab continues to partner with the private sector to create long-term jobs and bolster our nation’s energy security.” Bennett also credited contributions from the Governor and his economic development team, as well as the U. of Colorado, Colorado State U., and Colorado School of Mines.

And since part of the new GE plant will mean adding ~100 jobs at the company’s NY State renewables research HQ (Schenectady) and research center (Niskayuna), NY Lt. Gov. Robert Duffy also weighed in: “We are once again proving that New York state is open for business and well positioned to create new economic opportunities across our state. We look forward to continuing to work with GE and support the growth of their solar business here in New York.”

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