Looking back it's easy to pinpoint the moment the U.S. wind industry came of age: April 12, 2002, when General Electric won Enron Wind Corp.'s wind assets in a bankruptcy auction.
The conglomerate's $358 million bid has since mushroomed into a $6 billion dollar business and the fastest-growing electricity generation technology in the U.S.
Now GE is hoping to repeat that trick in solar energy. GE announced yesterday a $600 million investment to start manufacturing solar panels in a new factory slated to be the largest in the U.S.
The move is likely to shake up an industry locked in a near-permanent price war. GE is adapting -- and says it has bettered -- the same technology as the world's current high-volume, low-cost manufacturer, FirstSolar, based in Tempe, Ariz.
Rather than produce solar systems based on silicon, a technology which dominates in the panels found on most household and commercial building roofs, GE's is turning to thin-film materials.
In thin film panels, instead of building the solar cells on silicon wafers, sheets of glass are used to sandwich minuscule layers of active material, including a key ingredient, cadmium telluride (CdTe), which gives the panel their name.
GE says its approach produces the most efficient CdTe panels to date, citing an evaluation by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab. NREL found that GE's thin film panels convert 12.8 percent of light into electricity, surpassing all previous measurements for CdTe panels.
While only about three-quarters as efficient of conventional silicon panels, the lower manufacturing costs of CdTe thin film panels make them cheaper, measured by per watt of capacity, than any currently viable commercial technology.
Declining to reveal any pricing details, Vic Abate, GE's vice president of renewable energy, affirmed the company aims to be a price leader.
As part of the announcement, GE completed the acquisition of PrimeStar, Inc., a thin film pioneer that GE first took a minority stake in three years ago. In earlier news, GE has also bid $3.2 billion for Converteam, a maker of advanced electronics used to manage and produce renewable energy.
Next Page: See GE's video on thin-film technology.