Summary:

The mystery’s over. GE apparently is serious about building a thin film solar business and the New York Times is reporting that GE plans to announce on Thursday that it will build a factory to produce 400 MW worth of thin film solar panels per year.

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The mystery’s over. GE apparently is serious about building a thin film solar business and the New York Times is reporting that GE plans to announce on Thursday that it will build a factory to produce 400 MW worth of thin film solar panels per year. That’s a massive step for the company, which up to this point had acquired majority share of PrimeStar Solar back in 2008, but hadn’t yet expanded beyond PrimeStar’s factory that’s been running at 30 MW per year in Arvada, Colorado.

As the New York Times explains it, such a sizable move by GE could potentially shake up the thin film solar market. First Solar is the leader in the U.S., but there’s a variety of other startups that have been struggling to ramp up production this year including MiaSole, Nanosolar, and Solyndra.

GE — via its PrimeStar acquisition — has been focusing on panels made of cadmium-telluride (CdTe). First Solar makes those types of panels, and has factories totaling 1.4 GW and plans to expand that to 2.7 GW by 2012. Abound Solar is also in this space and cinched a $400 million federal loan last year to build a new factory and expand an existing one. The new factories, along with an existing 65 MW plant, will give Abound 840 MW in production capacity by the end of 2014.

GE has been signaling this ramp up for awhile, and told us last month: “We’re continuing to make good progress in the lab and [are] on track to get a product out later this year,” said GE Global Research spokesman, Todd Alhart. “We think larger volume and bigger growth opportunities will come from scaling up this technology further, and that’s what we are working on now.”

GE’s involvement in solar is interesting, because the tech giant already is a formidable player in the power plant equipment and construction business, from fossil fuel to nuclear energy. In the renewable power space, the company is a big player in the wind market. It turned its attention to solar only in recent years and decided to sell its only silicon solar panel assembly plant in the U.S. back in 2009 in order to focus on, apparently, solar technologies that use non-silicon materials.

Last October, GE offered an outline of its plan to tackle the solar market by announcing a deal to sell copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS) solar panels from Solar Frontier in Japan. In Solar Frontier, GE found a partner that can supply in high volumes. Solar Frontier recently opened a 900 MW factory and is bringing its factory equipment online to reach that full production capacity.

But now GE is becoming a thin film player in its own right. GE recently showed off CdTe solar panels by hooking them up to run a carousel at the South by Southwest conference in Austin.

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