GE is taking aim at the world's biggest solar company in a bid to expand into a fast-growing renewable energy market.
General Electric Co. announced Thursday that it would spend $600 million to build the nation's biggest solar panel factory. It would build the same type of so-called thin film solar panels manufactured by First Solar Inc., the biggest producer of solar panels in the world.
GE also announced Thursday that testing by a government laboratory showed that its panels set an efficiency record for this type of thin film 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, vice president for GE's renewable energy business.
The company did not say where the factory would be built. Abate said it would eventually employ 400 people and be producing panels by 2013. The plant would have the capacity to build 400 megawatts worth of panels per year, enough to power about 80,000 homes.
By comparison, First Solar will have 2,300 MW of capacity by the end of this year.
Still, analysts say GE's size, manufacturing experience, and ability to invest heavily in technology and to finance projects is sure to eventually pressure First Solar and other solar makers.
"There's no way to not look at this as a severe competitive threat," said Aaron Chew, an analyst at Hapoalim Securities in New York.
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.
First Solar shares dropped $2.35 to $148.25. GE shares slipped 30 cents to $20.24.
GE, based in Fairfield, is the biggest maker of wind turbines in the U.S. and among the biggest in the world, but it has been slow to venture into solar. It first bought a minority stake in PrimeStar Solar, which developed the technology GE now plans to manufacture, in 2007. It recently acquired all of PrimeStar, which is based in Colorado.
Solar power is far more expensive than wind power, and contributes far less power to the nation's grid.
But the growth in wind power was cut in half in 2010. Low electricity prices make wind look comparably more expensive. There's a lack of transmission lines from remote, windy locations. And state and federal policymakers are reluctant to impose or increase renewable energy mandates.
Solar continues to grow quickly, a result of rapidly falling panel prices and state incentives. Also, solar panels produce power during the heat of the day, when power prices are high. Wind typically blows strongest at night, and has to compete with lower wholesale power rates.
Over the next five years, Abate estimates, the world will spend $20 billion to install 75,000 megawatts of solar panels.
Abate, who also runs GE's wind business, expects wind to continue to provide the bulk of the world's renewable power. He said GE had been studying solar, and waiting for the best technology to emerge.
GE has now made its choice: so-called cad-tel thin film panels.
Most solar panels are made from crystalline silicon, similar to the material that is used to make the brains of computers and electronics. These cells are more efficient at turning the sun's rays into electricity, but they are more expensive to manufacture.
The promise of thin film cells is that they can be manufactured so cheaply that even if the cell itself is less efficient than a crystalline silicon cell, a solar power system based on thin films would produce cheaper solar power.
Only First Solar, though, has learned to make thin films efficient enough and cheap enough to win a big segment of the solar market. It is the only top solar panel maker that uses thin film.
GE now buys and re-sells another type of thin film panel, based on different chemistry, from Solar Frontier, a subsidiary of the Japanese energy giant and Royal Dutch Shell affiliate Showa Shell Sekiyu.
Abate said the cells from the new cad-tel plant will produce among the world's cheapest solar power.
"For solar to have a big breakthrough, there has to be a breakthrough in cost and affordability," Abate said. "That's a technical problem and it's something we are excited about."