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GE postpones thin-film solar factory plans

GE postpones thin-film solar factory plans

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GE's plans to build a massive thin-film solar factory in Colorado designed to catapult the company to the top of the industry have been quashed by market conditions.

General Electric, looking to repeat its success scaling up its wind business, had plans to build a massive thin-film solar cell factory in Colorado that would catapult the company to the top of the industry. The solar industry has changed a lot in the past year. And so have GE's plans.

GE says it has delayed its factory build out for at least 18 months, and possibly longer, in response to current market conditions within solar manufacturing, news first reported by Gigaom.

GE company spokeswoman Lindsay Theile confirmed the company stopped major work on the factory last week and is now in the process of wrapping up a few projects before it completely shuts down.

GE suspended its factory build out due to a dramatic shift in the solar industry over the past six months, Theile told me in an interview today. She specifically cited a 50 percent price drop in solar panels and an overcapacity of solar modules as the two determining factors that prompted GE to delay its solar manufacturing plans.

The company will shift its attention and investment to R&D and focus on improving the efficiency of the thin-film technology developed by PrimeStar, a Colorado-based startup that GE acquired last year.

GE will work on technology improvements at its Colorado and New York locations. GE's solar team has been downsized as a result of the factory suspension and is most likely those folks who were working on factory operations. However, Theile wouldn't disclose the number of layoffs or provide other details about the solar team. GE tries to absorb employees into other parts of the company, she said.

The factory, the centerpiece of a $600 million investment in cadmium telluride thin film solar cells, would have put GE on a direct path to overtake market leader First Solar, which uses the same semiconductor material in its panels. The 400-megawatt factory would have had the capacity to produce enough panels a year to power 80,000 homes, GE said at the time.

GE is still committed to thin film and cadmium telluride as the semiconductor, Theile said. The company isn't abandoning other components of its solar business, either. GE spent $3.2 billion last year to buy Converteam, a company that developed conversion technology that can turn intermittent renewable energy, like wind and solar, into reliable power for the grid. The business unit, which is now called Power Conversion, makes inverters used in solar modules.

GE also continues to finance and invest in solar power projects, Theile said.

Photo: GE

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Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure