Rather quietly, GE Research has bested First Solar for the cadmium telluride PV cell efficiency record. 

Clocking in at 18.3 percent, the new record edges First Solar's previous mark by a full 1 percent. First Solar (NASDAQ: FSLR) hit 17.3 percent about a year ago.

Presumably, this record was set using the PrimeStar Solar technology acquired by GE in the April 2011 acquisition of the Colorado firm. PrimeStar/GE uses (as did Abound) a close space sublimation (CSS) process for CdTe manufacturing, while First Solar uses a vapor transport deposition (VTD) process. (Note that the GE record is for a cell. First Solar still holds the module record at an NREL-measured 14.4 percent.)

General Electric announced plans to go into production in Colorado with 13 percent panels, and then backed off those plans in July 2012.  A spokesperson for the firm told GTM in an earlier interview that GE remains firmly committed to solar panel production and the plan is to revamp GE's process to reach 15-percent-efficiency panels.   

The test data was was reported in the most recent issue of Progress in Photovoltaics, but word of this record came from a GTM reader who spotted it on the NREL record solar cell efficiency chart. This is the NREL solar efficiency record chart that launched a hundred solar startups and has lured investors to bet on the learning curves of CIGS, a-si, OSCs, and CPV.

Once these records were the domain of labs, government-affiliated entities, or universities.

But Alta Devices' flexible single-junction gallium arsenide (GaAs) photovoltaics hit 28.8 percent cell efficiencies. Startups such as Amonix (HCPV system), Solar Junction (III-V Triple Junction), and Solexel (thin-film c-Si) lead their respective chemistries. It's certainly a testament to the risk-taking and smarts of these solar entrepreneurs and investors. It's also a potential indictment of an underfunded energy research sector that has left VCs shouldering applied research.

First Solar has lost the lead in hero-cell efficiency, but still holds a bit of an edge in megawatts deployed -- the firm's 2012 guidance is for net sales of $3.5 billion to $3.8 billion at a module manufacturing cost below $0.70 per watt. 

First Solar's CTO Raffi Garabedian told GTM, "It validates our belief that CdTe research-cell efficiency is far from saturated and will ultimately be on-par with the other high performance thin-film compound semiconductors like CIGS. CdTe already provides the best combination of manufacturability and performance, making it the most cost-effective technology for utility-grade PV. Further efficiency improvements at the manufacturing scale will solidify this position." 

First Solar is working with Intermolecular as part of its effort to improve panel performance.

Other firms looking to innovate in CdTe include Reel Solar, Bloo Solar, and Calyxo.

Chart from NREL. Click to enlarge.