8 April 2011

GE reports record 12.8%-efficient thin-film solar panel; plans 400MW US manufacturing plant

General Electric (GE) says that a full-size, thin-film solar panel developed by the firm has been independently certified by the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) as the most efficient ever publicly reported, with an energy conversion efficiency of 12.8%.

GE intends to manufacture the panels at a new US factory that will be larger than any existing solar panel factory in the country. When complete, the factory will highlight an expected investment of more than $600m made by GE in solar technology and commercialization, and will be complemented by its acquisition of power conversion technology firm Converteam (announced at the end of March).

In addition, GE has completed its acquisition of PrimeStar Solar Inc of Arvada, CO, USA. PrimeStar was founded in Golden, CO in June 2006 to develop cadmium telluride (CdTe) thin-film photovoltaic modules using technology from NREL (which is based in Golden). After acquiring a minority stake in September 2007, GE’s power generation division GE Energy of Atlanta, GA, USA took a majority stake in PrimeStar in June 2008.

GE says that photovoltaic solar is the next step in growing its renewable energy portfolio and is part of the firm’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,” says Victor Abate, VP 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,” he adds. Demand for photovoltaics is expected to grow by 75GW over the next five years, with utility-scale solar power plants comprising a significant part of that. With its technology and manufacturing investments recently announced, GE says that it is positioning itself to capitalize on this trend.

The record panel was produced on the PrimeStar 30MW manufacturing line in Arvada. It was measured by NREL at a 12.8% aperture area efficiency, surpassing previously published records for CdTe thin film (the most affordable solar technology in the industry, GE says). GE says that continually increasing solar panel efficiency is a key component of its goal to reduce the total cost of electricity for utilities and consumers (a 1% increase in efficiency is equal to a cut in system cost of about 10%, it notes).

“It’s great to see technology that started at NREL ready to move into the market,” comments Ryne Raffaelle, director of the National Center for Photovoltaics at NREL. NREL transitioned the technology to PrimeStar through a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) signed in 2007.

GE plans to build a thin-film solar panel factory in the USA that, at capacity, will produce enough panels per year to power 80,000 homes annually. The 400MW facility will be larger than any existing US solar panel manufacturing plant and will employ 400 people. Multiple locations are being considered, with the final location to be announced soon. This is just the first phase in a global, multi-gigawatt roadmap, says Abate.

The firm also announced more than 100MW of new commercial agreements for solar thin-film products, including panels, inverters and total solar power plants. Its largest solar agreement to date is with NextEra Energy for 60MW of thin-film panels. Once deployed, they will help to grow NextEra’s solar power portfolio, solidifying its position as the largest generator of solar energy in the USA.

GE has also signed a 20MW solar agreement with Chicago-based clean energy generation firm Invenergy for the supply of thin-film solar panels and GE Brilliance inverters. Invenergy will install the solar products at a project site in Illinois. It recently executed a power purchase agreement for the project which, upon completion, will be one of the largest solar installations in the state.

GE also offers power electronics and pre-designed utility-scale solar power plants for use in multi-megawatt applications. The $3.2bn acquisition of Converteam will add that firm’s energy conversion technologies to GE’s solar offerings, broadening its portfolio. GE says that power electronics are critical to bringing renewable sources such as wind and solar into the mainstream, delivering economies of scale and providing stable connection to the grid. By adding Converteam technology, GE aims to be well positioned to bring a broad range of integrated generators, converters and inverters to the wind turbine and solar plant sectors.

Tags: General Electric Thin-film solar panels PrimeStar Solar CdTe photovoltaic modules

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