Earlier this month, General Electric announced plans to enter the global marketplace for solar photovoltaic (PV) panels in a big way – and to do it, they will be using technology pioneered at the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL).
The record-breaking Cadmium-Telluride (CdTe) thin film photovoltaic technology GE has chosen for its solar panels was originally developed more than a decade ago by a team of scientists led by NREL's Xuanzhi Wu, and later commercialized by Colorado startup PrimeStar Solar. GE took a majority stake in PrimeStar in 2008, recently acquired the company outright, and now has gone public with plans to invest $600 million in a solar business built around PrimeStar's technology. That investment includes a new 400 megawatt U.S. manufacturing facility GE says will be “larger than any existing solar panel factory in the country today," employ 400 people and produce enough panels each year to power 80,000 homes.
Founded in 2006 to develop Dr. Wu’s breakthrough into a commercial solar panel, PrimeStar Solar has continued to engage with the Department of Energy to keep improving its product. The company has partnered with NREL to pursue cooperative research and development agreements, and it has won a competitive award from the Solar Energy Technologies Program to participate in our PV Technology Incubator Program. The PV Incubator award helped PrimeStar build its first 30 megawatts of manufacturing capacity in Arvada, Colorado. NREL tests recently confirmed that the factory’s panels convert sunlight to electrical energy with 12.8 percent efficiency. Scientists at NREL continue to assist researchers at GE and PrimeStar to improve performance and lower total system costs.
The story of PrimeStar's successful engagement with the Department of Energy is one of several we will be highlighting in coming weeks that demonstrate significant early progress toward the SunShot Initiative’s goal: to make solar energy cost-competitive with other forms of energy by reducing the cost of large-scale solar energy systems 75% by 2020. GE’s plans to drastically increase PrimeStar’s production capacity place its solar business in a field with other Department of Energy PV Incubator alumni such as Abound Solar and Solopower. Within the next few years, all three companies will be producing solar thin film PV modules at large commercial scale in the U.S. – and all will be doing it thanks to American innovations made possible by the Department’s sustained investment in solar energy R&D.
Minh Le is Chief Engineer in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Program.