GE plans $600m solar panel plant

GE plans to make affordable thin film solar panels. GE plans to make affordable thin film solar panels. (Associated Press/File 2008)
Associated Press / April 8, 2011

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NEW YORK — Expanding into the growing renewable energy market, General Electric Co. said yesterday that it will build a $600 million solar panel factory, the nation’s biggest, to produce the same type of “thin film’’ panels made by First Solar Inc., the biggest producer.

GE also said that government tests showed its panels set an efficiency record for this type of panel, made from the elements cadmium and tellurium.

“It’s demonstrated to be the cost leader in the marketplace, and we think we can push costs lower, and faster,’’ said Vic Abate, a GE vice president.

The company did not say where the factory will be built. Abate said it would eventually employ 400 people and produce panels by 2013, with the capacity to build 400 megawatts’ worth of panels per year, or enough to power about 80,000 homes. First Solar will have 2,300 megawatts of capacity by the end of this year.

Still, analysts say GE’s size and ability to invest heavily in projects is sure to pressure First Solar and other panel makers.

“There’s no way to not look at this as a severe competitive threat,’’ said Aaron Chew, at Hapoalim Securities.

Several large Korean companies — Samsung, Hyundai Heavy Industries, LG Display, and LG Electronics — have also indicated they plan to invest in solar.

“The big boys are entering the space, and it doesn’t bode well for the smaller players,’’ Chew said.

GE is the biggest maker of wind turbines in the United States and among the biggest in the world, but it has been slow to venture into solar. It recently acquired PrimeStar Solar, based in Colorado.

In the next five years, Abate said, the world will spend $20 billion on 75,000 megawatts of solar panels. Abate, who also runs GE’s wind business, expects wind to continue to provide most of the world’s renewable power.