Summary:

GE is gunning for First Solar’s turf with a new line of thin-film solar panels, saying it hopes to grow its solar business to match its $6 billion-a-year wind power dominance.

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General Electric wants to make solar power as big a business for it as wind power is today — and it’s starting to look to thin-film solar technology to do it. On Tuesday GE laid down a double bet in the market, saying it will produce thin-film panels made both out of copper, indium, gallium and selenium (CIGS), as well as cadmium-telluride (Cd-Te) — the latter a direct challenge to thin-film giant First Solar.

GE’s Cd-Te partner is Denver, Colo.-based PrimeStar Solar, which intends to start producing panels at its 30MW plant next year, and which GE has previously invested in. GE has three customers for those panels already, though it isn’t naming them, and says it’s looking at expanding production, either at today’s Colorado plant or elsewhere, Matt Guyette, global strategy leader for GE’s Renewable Energy business, told me in a Tuesday interview.

As for the next-gen CIGS panels, GE is working with Showa Shell Sekiyu’s business unit Solar Frontier, which plans to have 900MWs of capacity up and running next year. Competing CIGS players include startups Nanosolar, Miasole, and HelioVolt.

Both GE’s CIGS and cadmium-telluride panels can claim 11 percent efficiency, Guyette said — within reach of the 11.2-percent efficiencies of First Solar’s panels. Recent cells running off PrimeStar’s Cd-Tel line have reached 15 percent efficiency, Guyette said, though getting panel efficiencies to that level is certainly farther out. GE sold its more conventional polysilicon solar panel manufacturing business to Taiwanese solar company Motech last year, largely because GE didn’t see “technical innovation” in the space, he said.

Guyette declined to compare GE’s thin-film panels costs to First Solar’s, which stood at 78 cents per watt as of the second quarter. Instead, he said GE’s integrated solar offering is expected to bring its levelized cost of energy — the price of power over a system’s lifetime — lower than the competition. Beyond its own inverters, custom racking system and system-wide integration, GE will offer a range of services aimed at designing and maintaining both utility-scale and rooftop installations, he said.

These kinds of balance-of-systems (BOS) costs are an increasing focus of the solar industry, with microinverters, power electronics and solar power monitoring and management technologies offering efficiency increases that are becoming harder and harder to squeeze out of the panels themselves. GE’s depth of direct involvement in every part of the balance-of-system chain could give it big advantages over developers that piece theirs together.

Indeed, integration over the entire system is emerging fast and furious. Inverter maker PowerOne bought solar monitoring/management startup Fat Spaniel last week, in a move that Fat Spaniel investor Element Partners ascribed to wanting to package solar monitoring in a broader solar equipment and services offering. Last week, Chinese solar panel giant Suntech said it would incorporate solar optimization technology from both stealthy startup Azuray and chipmaking giant National Semiconductor.

Much of GE’s integrated solar offering is following in the footsteps of its $6 billion wind power business, Guyette noted. That includes GE’s 700KW and 1MW Brilliance inverters and its SunIQ system — the “brains behind managing a solar farm” — based on similar systems its developed to manage intermittent wind power.

GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt has said he wants GE’s solar business to rival its wind business in the future, but Guyette said the company hasn’t set any specific goals for its solar business. It will have ample competition, as rival announcements from the first day of this week’s Solar Power International conference indicate.

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