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GE to Build Largest U.S. Solar Panel Plant

General Electric Co. has announced that it will spend $600 million to build the largest solar panel factory in the United States, a facility that will produce thin-film panels.

GE also announced that testing by a government laboratory showed that its panels set an efficiency record for this type of thin film panel, made from the elements cadmium and tellurium.

“It’s demonstrated to be the cost leader in the marketplace and we think we can push costs lower, and faster,” said Vic Abate, vice president for GE’s renewable energy business.

The company did not say where the factory would be built. Abate said it would eventually employ 400 people and be producing panels by 2013. The plant would have the capacity to build 400 megawatts worth of panels per year, enough to power about 80,000 homes.

GE will be going head to head with the world’s largest solar panel maker, First Solar Inc., in the burgeoning competition for thin-film panels. By the end of this year, First Solar is expected to be manufacturing 2,300 MW of capacity.

Analysts say GE’s size, manufacturing experience, and ability to invest heavily in technology and to finance projects is sure to eventually pressure First Solar and other solar makers. “There’s no way to not look at this as a severe competitive threat,” said Aaron Chew, an analyst at Hapoalim Securities in New York.

Several large Korean companies – Samsung, Hyundai Heavy Industries, LG Display, and LG Electronics – have also indicated they plan to invest in solar.

When complete, the factory will highlight an expected $600 million plus investment made by GE in solar technology and commercialization and will be complemented by the recently announced acquisition of power conversion company Converteam.

In addition, GE has completed the acquisition of PrimeStar Solar, Inc., a thin film solar technology company in which GE has held a majority equity stake since 2008. Photovoltaic solar is the next step in growing GE’s renewable energy portfolio and is part of the company’s “ecomagination” commitment to drive clean energy technology through innovation and R&D investment.

“Over the last decade, through technology investment, GE has become one of the world’s major wind turbine manufacturers, and our investment in high-tech solar products will help us continue to grow our position in the renewable energy industry,” said Victor Abate, vice president of GE’s renewable energy business. “We are addressing the biggest barrier for the mainstream adoption of solar technology—cost—and the NREL certification proves that we are on track to deliver the most affordable solutions for our customers.”

Global demand for photovoltaics is expected to grow by 75 gigawatts over the next five years, with utility-scale solar power plants making up a significant part of that growth. With the technology and manufacturing investments recently announced, GE is well positioned to capitalize on this trend.

The record-setting panel was produced on the PrimeStar 30-megawatt manufacturing line in Arvada, CO. It was measured by the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) at a 12.8 percent aperture area efficiency. This panel surpasses all previously published records for CdTe thin film, which is the most affordable solar technology in the industry. Continually increasing solar panel efficiency is a key component of GE’s goal to offer advanced solar products while reducing the total cost of electricity for utilities and consumers. In fact, a 1 percent increase in efficiency is equal to an approximate 10 percent decrease in system cost.

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