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The GE-First Solar panel efficiency battle is on

The GE-First Solar panel efficiency battle is on

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GE will invest $600 million into building up its solar business, which includes a new factory to produce cadmium telluride panels, the same material used by cost leader First Solar.

GE will build a massive new factory in Aurora, Colo., to produce cadmium telluride thin film solar cells. The long-anticipated move is the centerpiece of a $600 million investment that aims to catapult GE to the top of the solar industry and repeat the success it had scaling up its wind business. It also puts GE on the hunt to overtake market leader First Solar, which uses the same semiconductor material in its panels.

The 400 megawatt factory has the capacity to produce enough panels a year to power 80,000 homes and will create 355 jobs in Colorado after completion. GE announced it was adding another 100 high-tech renewable energy-related jobs in New York.

GE is using an existing facility, which will enable the company to bring its panels to market more quickly, Victor Abate, vice president of GE's renewable energy business, told me in a phone interview this morning. The first panels are expected to come off the line in 2012 with commercial availability in 2013.

The location makes sense. Earlier this year, GE bought PrimeStar Solar, a Colorado-based start-up that developed the technology behind GE's panels and operated a 30 MW factory.

Although GE has the financial muscle and a deep technological pool to pull from, it still faces stiff competition and a challenging market. For one, solar prices dropped off a cliff -- up to 40 percent -- earlier this year as government incentives in Europe decreased and Chinese factories pumped out polysilicon crystalline photovoltaic panels, which created a supply glut.

And GE is competing against other successful cadmium telluride solar makers that have more manufacturing capacity. First Solar, the largest manufacturer of non-silicon panels in the world, is the thin-film solar company to beat. Although other companies including Abound Solar are expanding thin-film solar manufacturing capacity as well. Still, First Solar is by far the behemoth in the bunch. The company, which already has more than 1 gigawatt of manufacturing capacity, says it expects to build that up to 2.3 gigawatts by the end of the year.

GE says it has a strategy to beat out its competitors: make their modules lighter, larger and more efficient. Abate said the lighter, larger modules opens up more of the commercial solar rooftop market and makes them competitive for utility-scale projects.

Aside from GE's financial prowess, Abate said the company has one advantage over pure play solar companies. GE's various business units provides a large, widespread technological base to pull from. For example, the company has taken technology from digital X-rays developed by its healthcare unit and applied it to its solar panels, he said.

In April 2011, GE announced it had reached 12.8 percent efficiency on its cadmium telluride solar panel -- the highest reported figure at the time. Several months later, First Solar announced it reached 17.3 percent efficiency in a lab, shattering the 10-year-old record set by National Renewable Energy Lab.  Those panels won't go into production anytime soon, but it did provide evidence that an efficiency ceiling is still a ways off. First Solar said in a recent earnings report it expected to offer panels with 13.5 percent to 14.5 percent efficiency in 2014.

Meanwhile, GE has pushed its efficiency beyond 13 percent. The company has targeted a 14 percent efficiency for the modules produced at the new Colorado factory, said Abate.

Photos: 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