GE and First Solar announced [last] week an important step towards consolidation of the solar industry that will result in the loss of a new solar manufacturing facility in Colorado and, potentially 350 jobs. Clearly the announcement is frustrating for Colorado, a state we featured in EDF’s Clean Energy Economic Development Series, which highlights key road maps for maximizing economic development from clean energy markets.
But, the announcement includes lots of good news – which is probably more significant for the U.S.’s long-term solar power play as well as overall economic opportunity and job creation. In 2009, GE purchased PrimeStar Solar, a company first seeded at the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Labs (NREL), located in Colorado. PrimeStar Solar (renamed Arvada research center) made significant advances in the efficiency of cadmium-telluride (CdTe) thin film solar panels. This lowered the cost of thin film solar panels overall and made them more competitive with traditional solar panels.
CdTe thin film solar panels require less material than alternative technologies – which lowers their cost – but their efficiency continues to lag behind traditional, silicon-based solar panels. The deal gives GE a large stock position in First Solar in exchange for giving First Solar the new CdTe thin film solar technology – essentially creating a key strategic partnership between the two companies.
First Solar, as the U.S. leader in solar power development, offers a unique ability to bring new technologies to scale. Deploying and further developing CdTe thin film solar technology from Arvada is critical to further advances in panel efficiency, and First Solar is well positioned to deliver these advances with continued GE research, input and support.
Leading solar experts, such as the head of NREL’s lad, Dan Arvizu, continue to believe that vast opportunities exists for improving the efficiency of solar panels, particularly CdTe thin film. Commenting on these opportunities last spring, Zachary Shahan, Director of CleanTechnica, summarized the global challenge as: “I guess the question this leaves us with is which technology or technologies will improve their real-world efficiencies using low-cost materials quickly enough to dominate the solar power market in the coming decades?”
By jointly harnessing their expertise in research and development, industry leaders GE and First Solar have the potential to dominate the solar energy industry, a good news story for the U.S. We hope Colorado reaps some of those long-term economic, environmental and health benefits, and we know that the prospect of having a homegrown, global powerhouse in solar power guarantees long-term benefits for the country as a whole.