GE’s Big Bet on Solar: A Win for Colorado

Two weeks ago, after fielding questions about Solyndra from the House energy subcommittee, Energy Secretary Steven Chu came to Colorado to visit a bright spot in the U.S. solar industry. Touring the PrimeStar manufacturing plant in Aurora, recently purchased by GE, Chu highlighted innovation in the technology and stressed the need for American leadership—despite the leaps that China is making in solar panel manufacturing.

(Learn more about GE’s proposed solar panel manufacturing plant.)

"It’s our feeling that we should not wave the white flag, we should not say, “Oops, we may have invented it, but we’re going to be out-manufactured," Chu said. " We really can and should take back this technology lead."

In the wake of Solyndra’s bankruptcy and ensuing media scrutiny, the U.S. solar industry finds itself in an image war with renewable-energy skeptics, whose criticisms tend to fault government investment as a crutch for an otherwise weak industry. However, the industry continues to move forward as giants like GE invest in the technology.

GE’s acquisition of PrimeStar gives the company ownership of one of the most innovative solar manufacturing facilities in the country. PrimeStar, which produces thin-film photovoltaic (PV) modules, developed its technology in partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

This thin-film technology enables the production of lighter but larger panels, reducing overall installed system costs (see RMI’s work on non-modular, balance of system costs).

Starting in 2012, GE will scale up production in a new $300 million manufacturing plant with a delivery date slated for commercial and utility customers by 2013. The investment will create 355 jobs in Colorado and 100 more New York, where GE operates its renewable energy global headquarters.

This is a big bet for thin-film, which still holds a much smaller share of the solar market than the more common crystalline technology. Here in the U.S., the industry is largely dominated by First Solar, which currently has two pending DOE loan guarantee’s totaling more than $2 billion.

So GE’s move can be taken as a positive signal for U.S. solar innovation and investment—manufacturers are not waving white flags. When it is completed, the GE’s facility will be the largest of its kind in the U.S., producing panels at an annual rate of 400 megawatts, enough to power 80,000 homes. That’s good news for the solar industry, Colorado and American competitiveness.