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June 1st, 2011

GE expands on thin-film solar, becomes near-term grid parity believer

Published on June 1st, 2011 | By: pwray@ceramics.org

CdTe array. Credit: NREL.

For the first time that I am aware of, it General Electric seems to have jumped on the Sach’s Law bandwagon and decided that solar power very soon will be competitive with fossil fuel and nuclear energy sources. In a recent interview with Bloomberg News, GE’s global research director, Mark M. Little, asserts that parity will arrive in three to five years.

From a business point of view, it should be noted that Little is glossing over a least one crucial distinction, namely that one has to differentiate between the a discussion about the wholesale cost (less costly per kilowatt-hour) of energy or the retail cost (more costly). But, you get the idea: GE sees a big change coming.

Little tells Bloomberg, “If we can get solar at 15 cents a kilowatt-hour or lower, which I’m hopeful that we will do, you’re going to have a lot of people that are going to want to have solar at home.”

GE also still has a significant footprint in the natural gas and wind turbine-generation business, so in a sense it is covering several scenarios. But the company has been putting some serious investments into thin-film solar R&D that are starting to pay off.

For one thing, GE became a major investor in 2007 in PrimeStar Solar, a maker of cadmium telluride thin-film panels, which just two months ago set the record (12.8 percent) efficiency for CdTe thin films. GE now fully owns PrimeStar and said in an April DOE blog post that it intended to soon build a 400-megawatt CdTe manufacturing facility. The company will be competing with CdTe panel maker First Solar, a company that has been singled out by market researchers, such as Lux, for its ability to continually reduce its manufacturing costs.

Little reiterated these manufacturing plans in the Bloomberg interview and says the facility will open in 2013. He notes that GE is developing many Smart Grid products and services. He specifically mentions its Nucleus consumer-grade power monitor product, announced in 2010, that integrates with personal computers and smart phones. The company is also working on complimentary metering devices.

The PrimeStar–GE relationship is a positive example of how government research can pay off in the commercial sector. The CdTe approach they use, according to the DOE, was developed at the National Renewable Energy Lab by a group led by Xuanzhi Wu. PrimeStar was launched in 2006 to commercialize Wu’s innovations.

I expect some of GE’s plans will be discussed later this summer at ACerS’ Ceramic Leadership Summit, where Krishan L. Luthra, technology leader in ceramics & metallurgy for GE Global Research, will be doing a presentation on emerging applications and challenges at GE


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