New York • GE is taking aim at the world's biggest solar company in a bid to expand into a fast-growing renewable-energy market.
General Electric Co. announced Thursday that it would spend $600 million to build the nation's biggest solar panel factory. It would build the same type of so-called thin film solar panels manufactured by First Solar Inc., the biggest producer of solar panels in the world.
GE also announced Thursday that testing by a government laboratory showed that its panels set an efficiency record for this type of thin film panel, made from the elements cadmium and tellurium.
"It's demonstrated to be the cost leader in the marketplace, and we think we can push costs lower and faster," said Vic Abate, vice president for GE's renewable energy business.
The company did not say where the factory would be built. Abate said it would eventually employ 400 people and be producing panels by 2013. The plant would have the capacity to build 400 megawatts worth of panels per year, enough to power about 80,000 homes.
By comparison, First Solar will have 2,300 MW of capacity by the end of this year.
Still, analysts say GE's size, manufacturing experience and ability to invest heavily in technology and to finance projects are sure to eventually pressure First Solar and other solar makers.
Several large Korean companies Samsung, Hyundai Heavy Industries, LG Display and LG Electronics have also indicated they plan to invest in solar.
First Solar shares dropped $2.35, to $148.25. GE shares slipped 30 cents, to $20.24.
GE is the biggest maker of wind turbines in the U.S. and among the biggest in the world, but it has been slow to venture into solar. It first bought a minority stake in PrimeStar Solar, which developed the technology GE now plans to manufacture, in 2007. It recently acquired all of PrimeStar, which is based in Colorado.
Solar power is far more expensive than wind power and contributes far less power to the nation's grid.
But the growth in wind power was cut in half in 2010. Low electricity prices make wind look comparably more expensive. There's a lack of transmission lines from remote, windy locations.
And state and federal policymakers are reluctant to impose or increase renewable energy mandates.
Solar continues to grow quickly, a result of rapidly falling panel prices and state incentives. Also, solar panels produce power during the heat of the day, when power prices are high. Wind typically blows strongest at night and has to compete with lower wholesale power rates.