GE crashes CdTe party with record panels, US capacity, M&A

GE is pledging a major commitment to solar PV with a $600M investment into solar technology and commercialization involving acquisitions, hundred-megawatt manufacturing capacity, and record CdTe panel efficiencies — and hints that it could keep pace in the relentless cost/W trail blazed by another US-based thin-film giant.

April 8, 2011 – Already a major player in renewable energy via wind power, GE has taken a bold step into solar PV with several announcements, mainly its acquisition of PrimeStar Solar (with whom it had been working in CdTe R&D). The startup has created a NREL-confirmed record 12.8% efficiency (aperture area) panel on its 30MW line in Arvada, CO, the company says in a statement.

Further, GE says it will build a 400MW thin-film solar panel in the US (employing 400 workers), what would be currently the largest in the country, reportedly ready by 2013. (Monocrystalline-silicon firm SolarWorld currently has the biggest US solar PV site, with its cell+module operation in Oregon scalable to a combined 500MW combined.) “Multiple locations are being considered,” with a final location to be chosen “shortly,” reportedly as soon as 90 days.

GE says the new CdTe push is part of a planned $600M+ investment into solar technology and commercialization. The company says it has 100MW of backlog for solar thin-film panels, inverters, and power plants. That includes commitments from two major renewable energy customers in North America: a 60MW-of-panels commitment to NextEra Energy (nearly 19GW in capacity across 26 states and Canada), and 20MW of panels and inverters with Invenergy (2.2GW across North America and Europe), which claims to have contracts for 40MW of solar projects. (GE also pointed out a recent complementary deal to take a 90% stake in France-based Converteam, which sells electrification and automation systems — drivers and power electronics, rotating machines, generators, and controls; this has a play in solar as well, i.e. adjusting electrical frequency with solar power inverters.)

From a sky-high view, GE’s CdTe play is a vote of confidence in solar PV and thin-film solar technology. The company has “invest[ed] extremely heavily in solar” over the past five years, and “going to scale is the next move,” noted Victor Abate, VP for GE’s renewable energy business, quoted by the New York Times The goal is to parallel the ramp-up of GE’s wind business, which has scaled from “a couple of hundred million dollars in 2002 to now ~$6B, he told the Wall Street Journal.

The company projects global demand for solar PV will surge to 75GW over the next five years, much of that in utility-scale plants, a nice market to be in. But more importantly, there are clear opportunities to bring costs down. Every other energy source is experiencing rising costs — including renewable wind energy, which is captive to rising steel costs for turbines, explains Kaufman Brothers analyst Jeffrey Bencik. Five years ago solar wasn’t really cost-competitive, but now solar costs are half what they were two years ago, so “they can see this is a real business.” While Abate stated that GE’s new solar PV stake-in-the-ground “demonstrates our confidence in this technology and is just the first phase in a global, multi-gigawatt roadmap,” Bencik thinks a second factory to better prove its long-term commitment and really win over market watchers and investors.

GE’s PV play also is a shot across the bow of CdTe companies. US-based CdTe giant First Solar just days ago laid out plans to expand domestic capacity with a 250MW facility in Arizona (expandable to >600MW), slated to ship modules in late 2012. Abound Solar is expanding capacity at its existing CO facility and a new site in Indiana, together totaling 840MW/year of solar module production, thanks to a recently-awarded $400M DoE loan guarantee on top of $110M in equity financing. It should be noted that FSLR has a large headstart on GE (and everyone else) in solar in terms of cost/W (down to $0.75/W in 1Q10, an 11% reduction over 12 months) and capacity (>2.3GW pledged for 2011).

While FSLR is leading the cost/W charge, GE seems to think it can compete there too. Not only does GE plan to push efficiencies “much higher” than the current 13%, but “we probably can cut costs 50% over the next several years,” Abate told the NYT.

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