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GE: Solar business is our 'next wind'

To boost its solar business, General Electric is planning to launch products built around new technology: cadmium telluride thin-film solar cells that lower the cost of solar.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--General Electric plans to give its solar business a charge within two years by introducing panels with the same solar cell material used by industry cost leader First Solar.

In 2011, the energy giant expects to produce solar panels made with cadmium telluride, a thin-film solar cell material, Michael Idelchik, vice president of advanced technologies at GE Global Research, said here Wednesday at the EmTech conference. The company now sells solar panels that use silicon solar cells, but its long-term bet is on thin-film--and specifically cadmium telluride--because it offers the cheapest cost per watt, he said.

Cadmium telluride solar panels from First Solar installed in Berkeley, Calif.
Cadmium telluride solar panels from First Solar installed in Berkeley, Calif. SolarCity

Last year, GE's energy division took a majority stake in Golden, Colo.-based PrimeStar Solar, for its cadmium telluride cell technology. GE is now developing a product around that aimed at utility and commercial customers.

Solar at GE is a relatively small part of its sprawling energy portfolio, which covers everything from nuclear power plants to natural gas turbines. But GE expects that solar has the potential to grow rapidly, as its multibillion-dollar wind business has done over the past five years.

"Solar is definitely the next wind for us. It's not there yet, but it's moving very rapidly," Idelchik said. Solar is more expensive than wind right now, but he said that GE expects renewable energy mandates to help drive growth and bring costs down.

Thin-film solar cells offer lower production costs than the incumbent silicon because thin-film cells use far less material. Over the past five years, several solar companies have formed to make thin-film cells from a combination copper, indium, gallium, and selenide (CIGS), which are still not in the market in high volumes. GE's cells will be made from a compound of cadmium and tellurium.

Silicon cells are durable and more efficient at converting sunlight to electricity than thin-film solar cells. The most efficient commercial silicon cells can convert over 20 percent of sunlight to electricity. But GE Research projects that it can boost the efficiency of cadmium telluride to 12 percent efficiency and potentially higher, Idelchik said.

"We are excited about it because it can produce in diffuse light," he said. "The module (panel) life is 20 years--that's what the customer wants. It has the right production costs and right efficiency target."

Asked how its cadmium telluride products will differ from First Solar's, Idelchik answered only briefly that GE's device would be more "flexible for customers" in terms of installation and operation.

During his presentation, Idelchik said that GE is looking at ways of managing an entire solar array in a large installation built by a utility or commercial customer.

After his talk, he said that GE is developing technology to recycle solar cell material, as cadmium is a very toxic if it enters the environment.