GE's solar strategy: Partner with wind developers

One of General Electric's wind turbine customers has come back for more. But this time it's for 23 megawatts of thin-film solar panels.

General Electric's 400 megawatt thin-film solar panel factory might not be ready to pump out commercial-scale product, but that hasn't stopped the company from moving aggressively to build out its solar business. GE announced today an agreement to supply 23 megawatts of thin-film solar panels to Invenergy for its Grand Ridge Solar farm now under construction in Illinois. Once completed, it will be the largest solar farm in the Midwest, according to GE.

The announcement hints at GE's broader strategy to work with existing energy generation customers, such as wind or natural-gas power plant developers, to help scale up its solar business. GE has worked with Invenergy before. The panels supplied for the solar project will be located on 160 acres adjacent to Invenergy's Grand Ridge wind farm, where 140 of GE's wind turbines are providing 210 MW of power.

That doesn't mean GE solar panels will pop up next to every power generation project that contains its wind turbines or natural gas power plants. Still, even a small fraction would have a big impact. Adding solar to just 10 percent of GE's global wind turbine installed base would sell out the company's new 400 MW solar panel factory in Colorado for six years, according to the company.

Last October, GE announced plans to build a new factory in Aurora, Colo., to produce cadmium telluride thin-film solar cells. The factory 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. GE is using an existing facility for its new factory, which will enable the company to brings it panels to market more quickly.

The first panels are expected to come off the line in 2012 with commercial availability in 2013, Victor Abate, vice president of GE's renewable business, told me back in October. Which means the thin-film solar panels to used at the Grand Ridge solar project in Illinois won't come from the new factory. Instead, the company will source GE-branded panels from Japan-based Solar Frontier, which makes thin-film solar panels made of copper-indium-gallium-selenide or CIGS. Incidentally, Solar Frontier made its own news this week when it announced plans to ship up to 150 MW of CIGS panels for a power project in California.

Why is GE using a different thin-film technology for the Grand Ridge project? Matt Guyette, general manager of global strategy and marketing for GE's renewable energy business, told me in a phone interview today the partnership with Solar Frontier allows them to build out their solar position while building their own factory in Colorado.

GE believes thin-film cadmium-telluride technology delivers the lowest cost of energy, said Guyette. It's why the company is investing in the technology and the new panel factory. The next best solar tech, in GE's view, is CIGS.

Photo: GE

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com