GE Sets a Record in Thin-Film Solar Cell Efficiency

From Denver Post

By Mark Jaffe

When General Electric Co. put its plan to build a $300 million solar-panel plant in Aurora on hold because of a weak market in July, company executives said the time would be used to improve its panels.

GE made good on that, setting a world record for thin-film solar-cell efficiency in recent tests at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden.

While it doesn’t mean the Aurora plant is back on the drawing board yet, it is a big step, said Anil Duggal, solar-platform leader at GE’s global research facility in Niskayuna, N.Y.

“We think that to survive in this industry, we really have to push efficiency,” Duggal said. But before the company takes steps to build its plant, “the market has to settle,” he said.

GE has emerged, at least technologically, as the top challenger to First Solar Inc., the largest maker of thin-film solar cells, said Keith Emory, head of the NREL lab that verifies solar-cell efficiency.

“It has become neck-and-neck between the two of them on efficiency,” said Emory, whose lab checks all solar cells for the U.S. Department of Energy.

“They are the only two big enough do the hundreds and hundreds of tests needed to increase efficiency,” Emory said.

In Emory’s lab, GE’s solar cell reached an efficiency rate of 18.3 percent — a more than 40 percent improvement in performance in the past three years.

Efficiency is a measure of how much solar energy a cell turns into electricity. First Solar had held the efficiency record at 17.1 percent.

GE and First Solar apply a thin film of cadmium telluride to a substrate to create a solar cell.

GE’s process was developed by Arvada-based PrimeStar, a company GE purchased in April 2011. In October of that year, GE selected a site near Interstate 70 and Tower Road in Aurora to build the largest solar-panel factory in the county and employ 335 people.

Cad-tel cells are less efficient than traditional silicon cells but were supposed to be cheaper to make.

The price of silicon cells, however, has plummeted 75 percent in the past two years — driven by too much factory capacity and cheaper Chinese imports.

That led GE last July to announce an 18-month delay in building the Aurora plant.

“We remain committed to this project,” Danielle Merfeld, a GE executive, said at the time. “It is just a question of timing.”

The work on efficiency is being done at GE’s global research headquarters outside of Schenectady, N.Y.

The efficiencies in lab tests are higher than what can be achieved in manufacturing.

So Duggal said GE sends the cells to the GE Solar facility in Arvada, which, “while not full-scale manufacture, has all the processes.”

The Arvada results are fed back into the research designs in New York, Duggal said.

When GE announced its plans for the Aurora plant, its solar-cell efficiency was 12.8 percent.

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