General Electric to Invest In Thin Film Solar Player PrimeStar

While thin-film solar investments are all the rage, we haven’t seen much funding recently for companies working on the more mature cadmium telluride (CdTe) technology. Newer and competing material copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) is the focus of VC-heavy players Nanosolar, Miasole, Heliovolt, and others, while First Solar (FSLR) is the dominant player in the CdTe market.

That’s why we were a little surprised to see General Electric Energy (GE) announce that they have reached an agreement to acquire a minority interest, for an undisclosed amount, in CdTe player PrimeStar Solar. Cadmium telluride does have some benefits. First Solar has already proven that CdTe can be manufactured on a large scale, while CIGS technology struggles to reach commercialization. CdTe also has the potential to reach high-efficiencies, and has a low large-scale manufacturing process. It’s also just a more mature technology, as you can see from this graph via GreenTechMedia:

PrimeStar, based in Golden, Colo., was formed in June 2006 and uses technology developed at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Thin film solar is cheaper than traditional solar technology because it uses little or no silicon — unlike its better-known cousin, crystalline silicon.

Under GE’s ecomagination, which was launched in May of 2005, GE plans to invest $1.5 billion annually in research in cleaner technologies by 2010, up from $700 million in 2004. This year, the company was awarded $18.6M available over a three-year period if GE meets certain goals as part of the Department of Energy’s Solar America Initiative to develop low-cost photovoltaic technology. PrimeStar Solar also landed $3 million in funding from the DOE. In June, GE announced that it would use DayStar Technologies (DSTI) CIGS thin film solar cells as part of the research program. Now it looks like GE is interested in exploring the potential of CdTe.

“I believe that we’re in a horserace and all of these materials have very serious potential,” PrimeStar Solar President Ken Zweibel told us. Zweibel spent 27 years at the NREL leading the organization’s Thin Film PV Partnership program, where he helped develop thin-film technologies including the highly efficient CdTe, which was ultimately licensed by PrimeStar Solar (for other researchers involved, see the comments). Their PV cells can reach efficiency levels of 16.5 percent, not bad compared with silicon-based solar, which clocks in with efficiency of around 20 to 25 percent.

The biggest issue with CdTe we’ve seen is its potential safety hazards, as unmodified cadmium telluride quantum dots have proven toxic and cancerous. Both First Solar and PrimeStar solar realize this is a major issue, and have taken significant steps to ensure safe recycling of the materials. Zweibel said that like First Solar, PrimeStar will employ a take-back approach to earning revenue, which will require the company to put profits in an annuity until the modules are returned to a recycler.

Still, it’s obvious these guys get asked about safety a lot. The company’s FAQ page has but one question: “How does PrimeStar Solar plan to use cadmium safely?”


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