General Electric to Build the Country’s Largest Solar Factory in Colorado

General Electric Co. (GE) has announced its selection of Aurora, Colo., a suburb outside of Denver, as the site for its upcoming solar energy factory. Opening in 2012, the new factory will be the largest solar energy plant in the United States. The new plant will bring 355 additional jobs to the Denver area, and will begin manufacturing solar panels in 2012, which will be available for sale beginning in 2013. The new plant will join existing Colorado solar companies, which include Abound Solar, Ascent Solar Technologies and Abengoa Solar.

The panels, made from cadmium telluride, are similar to those manufactured by Phoenix energy company – and the world’s largest solar company – First Solar Inc. Cadmium telluride panels are less efficient at converting sunlight into electricity than panels made from crystalline silicon, but these panels are cheaper to manufacture and can therefore be sold at a lower cost.

Due to competition from low-cost solar panel manufacturers in China, the price of solar panels in the U.S. has fallen, despite a growing number of solar panel installations around the country. In the past year, 878 megawatts (MW) of solar energy were installed across the United States, up from 435 MW installed in 2009. One MW of solar energy can generate enough electricity to power between 150 and 200 homes. The price drop has driven U.S. solar companies to increase the energy efficiency of their solar panels, in order to maintain a technological edge over Chinese companies. Currently, the panels are 12.8 percent efficient at converting solar energy into usable electricity, but GE plans to strive to increase that figure to 16 to 20 percent and cut up to half of its costs in the future. Decreasing prices have recently helped solar panels become more accessible to the general public, a necessary step in order for the technology to become mainstream and common in middle-class American homes.

Ten states, including New York, vied for the new solar plant to be built in their state, but Colorado won because it had a suitable existing warehouse and was invested in solar energy research (Aurora is also home to the SolarTAC research park). The plant will be housed in an old, 200,000-square-foot L’Oreal warehouse, which will be renovated and outfitted for solar use. The plant will cost $400 million, will be built without federal government subsidies, and will generate 400 megawatts (MW) of electricity per year – enough to power 80,000 homes. Though solar energy companies are eligible for federal loans, GE is not applying for a loan, but is seeking tax credits.

Victor Abate, vice president for GE’s renewable energy sector, told the New York Times that he believes that his company will “be a cost leader, a technology leader and [is] excited about our position in a 75-gigawatt solar market over next five years.” Abate also said that GE expects to build several factories in the U.S. and abroad in the future, and that he expects 75,000 MW of solar energy to be installed across the country in the next five years.

This is one of GE’s first ventures into the solar energy market, and the company announced its plans to build a solar factory in April. The technology company, which manufactures electric equipment and appliances, has also made natural gas- and wind-powered turbines, but had not dealt with solar energy until it acquired Colorado-based energy company PrimeStar Solar Inc. in 2008. Since acquiring PrimeStar Solar, which manufactures thin-film photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, Connecticut-based GE has expanded its solar energy reach to global markets, including Thailand, but this is will be its first U.S. plant.

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