GE to build massive thin-film U.S. solar plant

The thin-film solar cells to be produced, which will feature 12.8 percent efficiency, were developed by PrimeStar Solar, which is now being acquired by GE, its lead investor.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
3 min read
GE plans to manufacture 400 megawatts worth annually of thin-film solar cells made with cadmium telluride. GE

General Electric plans to build a thin-film solar factory in the U.S. that will produce solar cells that have an efficiency of 12.8 percent, the company announced today.

In conjunction with this news, GE also announced that it has acquiredPrimeStar Solar, a company GE has had a stake in since 2008.

The thin-film solar cells to be manufactured using cadmium telluride were developed by PrimeStar through a cooperative research program with Department of Energy's National Center for Photovoltaics. The cells were given a 12.8 percent efficiency rating, through a verification process conducted by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL).

Even though others have achieved higher efficiencies in the lab, that 12.8 percent efficiency rating is significant in the world of thin-film solar technology manufacturing. Cells made from silicon can convert sunlight to electricity with a 15 percent to 20 percent efficiency, but are much more expensive to manufacture and considered a completely different class of solar cell. Thin-film solar cells made with copper, indium, gallium, and selenide (CIGS) have reached 15.7 percent efficiency in the lab.

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A better comparison would be with First Solar, the company that will be GE's leading competitor. First Solar has been producing thin-film solar cells using cadmium telluride for years, and has said those manufactured cells have an 11.2 percent efficiency

"Milestones like these are pivotal as the United States looks to drive widespread adoption of solar technologies," Ryne Raffaelle, director of the National Center for Photovoltaics at NREL, said in a statement.

GE said that its new plant, when complete, will be able to produce 400 megawatts worth of thin-film solar cells per year and employ 400 people. That would make it one of the largest thin-film solar manufacturing presences in the U.S.

The company didn't give specifics on where the facility will be sited, or when it will go into operation. GE said it plans to announce the location shortly, from among a number of locations being considered.

First Solar announced in March that it's building a 250-megawatt plant in Arizona to complement its existing Ohio plant, which will bring its total U.S. manufacturing capacity to 500 megawatts annually by 2012.

A few companies, including GE and Abound Solar, have bet on cadmium telluride rather than CIGS. That could be because it is easier to source those two materials instead of the four that go into CIGS. Cadmium and tellurium are often byproducts of mining operations.

The U.S. solar market grew 67 percent between 2009 and 2010 and is now a $6 billion market, according to a recent report from Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and GTM Research. The report saw growth potential in the space as more and more utilities seek to build installations for themselves, or source solar electricity for their portfolio.

Worldwide demand for solar is also expected to grow to a $113.6 billion industry by 2020, according to a recent report from Clean Edge.

GE has long said that it wants to be a major player in the space, announcing in 2009 that it would have a thin-film manufacturing plant in the U.S. by 2011.