General Electric announced yesterday it will spend $600 million to build a solar factory in Colorado, giving it the means to re-enter the solar business in force.
The company said the factory in Aurora will have the capacity to produce at an annual rate of 400 megawatts, or enough to power 80,000 U.S. homes. It will create 355 jobs in Colorado after completion and another 100 solar-related jobs at GE's research facility in upstate New York.
Production will start early next year of solar panels with cadmium telluride thin-film solar cells, the same thin-film material used by industry cost leader First Solar. Availability of panels will be in 2013.
GE intends to sell its panels to utility and commercial customers, where the company sees significant demand in the years ahead. Once completed, it will be the largest solar factory in the U.S.
The solar industry is in the midst of a brutal global price war which has led to the bankruptcy of four U.S.-based solar producers, including the high-profile collapse of government-backed Solyndra.
GE's product is designed to compete well on price by using low-cost thin-film materials which are relatively efficient at converting sunlight to electricity. The panels themselves are light and large which lowers the cost of related components, such as racking systems.
GE used to produce traditional panels with polycrystalline silicon solar cells which, with the onrush of Asian suppliers over the past few years, have become a commodity product. But in 2009, the company said it intends to re-enter the solar business, calling it GE's "next wind," with a new thin-film product aimed at utilities and commercial rooftops.
Earlier this year, it completed the acquisition of Colorado-based start-up PrimeStar Solar, which created the manufacturing process behind GE's current panels.
In a statement, GE said that locating its manufacturing plant near its existing pilot line and research facility in Colorado will allow it to enter the market faster than anticipated.
Vic Abate, the vice president of GE's renewable energy business, said the company was also aided by state and federal government officials involved in selecting a location for the factory and adding research jobs in New York.