GE’s Thin Film Solar Challenge


General Electric (s GE) has shown no lack of ambition to be a big player in the solar energy market, but how well it’s doing developing cadmium-telluride (CdTe) solar thin-film material remains a bit of a mystery. The company became the majority shareholder of CdTe solar panel developer PrimeStar Solar in 2008 and vowed to deliver a “breakthrough product” by devoting lots of sources to the Colorado startup.

The question is: When? We recently caught up with a GE Global Research spokesman, Todd Alhart, and asked about the company’s work with PrimeStar Solar. Last fall, GE said it would start selling CdTe solar panels in 2011, and indeed is offering three CdTe solar panel models now. The models can achieve efficiencies between 10.8 percent and 11.5 percent, which are higher than some, but not the best for CdTe panels on the market today.

GE promised to deliver something great through its investment in PrimeStar, however. The CdTe company, founded in 2006, only has a 30 MW factory, located in the Colorado city of Arvada. The factory is too small to compete effectively in a marketplace where top players run factories with hundreds of megawatts of capacities.

“We’re continuing to make good progress in the lab and [are] on track to get a product out later this year,” Alhart said via email. “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 recently showed off CdTe solar panels by hooking them up to run a carousel at the South by Southwest conference in Austin.

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 has 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. In its October press release, GE also mentioned PrimeStar’s CdTe panels and touted its own inverters and expertise in power plant engineering and construction.

GE’s deal with Solar Frontier is less risky than its involvement with PrimeStar Solar. Whether the tech giant can turn PrimeStar into a successful manufacturer is far from assured.

CdTe solar technology has seen its profile rise along with the success of First Solar (s FSLR), who is among the top three manufacturers worldwide and the only CdTe solar panel producers among the top 10 silicon solar panels dominating the market. Some CdTe solar company executives have argued that the rise of First Solar will help their products gain market acceptance much more quickly. But the number of CdTe solar startups seems far smaller than those developing CIGS solar panels.

Aside from First Solar, there is Abound Solar, which 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. A few other better known ones include Solexant, which is developing ways to print CdTe crystals on metal foil and is planning a 100MW factory. First Solar, on the other hand, has factories totaling 1.4GW and plans to expand that to 2.7GW by 2012, and that will make it hard for competitors to beat it on price.

GE certainly has the financial strength to help PrimeStar boost its manufacturing. But to expand to the size of First Solar won’t happen anytime soon. GE and PrimeStar will have to come up solar panels with higher efficiencies, then. The best CdTe panels from GE can fetch 11.5 percent. First Solar’s can do 11.6 percent. It’s no wonder then that GE has to promise to deliver something exceptional through PrimeStar.

Photo courtesy of GE

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