The news that General Electric has signed an agreement supply 23 megawatts of thin-film solar panels to Invenergy for its Grand Ridge Solar farm now under construction in Illinois may not be as big as last year’s annoucement that it would build a new factory in Aurora, Colorado.
But it is a major indicator of how the manufacturer intends to move its thin-film panel business forward. Once completed, Grand Ridge will be the largest solar farm in the Midwest, according to GE.
Writing in Smart Plant, Kirsten Korosec says the deal shows the company is moving aggressively to build out its solar business, even if the Aurora factory isn’t ready to pump out commercial-scale product.
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.
As reported in Colorado Energy News last fall, GE announced plans to build a new factory in Aurora to produce cadmium telluride thin-film solar cells. The factory is key to 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 retrofitting an existing facility in Aurora for the new production plant, cutting down on the time it will take to get its panels to market.
Full scale production at the Colorado factory won’t commence in time for thin film panels to be used in the Grand Ridge project. 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.
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 Kirsten 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, Guyette told Kirsten. 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.