First Solar won't be the only name in cadmium telluride solar panels soon.

General Electric today announced it will research and develop thin-film solar panels with PrimeStar Solar, specifically cadmium telluride solar cells, and then start selling them next year. Although Q-Cells and a few startups have launched plans to get into cad tel, First Solar is virtually the only large mass producer of cad tel solar modules.

GE invested in PrimeStar, a cad tel start-up, in 2007 and became the majority shareholder in 2008, but it has been somewhat coy about its intentions. GE mostly said they were interested in the thin film market, etc., etc. The behemoth was a little more direct today. GE researchers will work with PrimeStar to develop cad tel solar panels. GE will then sell these panels for utility-scale solar parks.

"We want to build a technical capability that will [help us] differentiate ourselves," said Danielle Merfeld, who leads GE's solar R&D, in a phone interview. Cadmium telluride holds the promise if being the least expensive type of solar panel, "and this is our way to get access that that (kind of) module."

This could turn into a titanic battle. First Solar is one of the two largest solar manufacturers in the world (China's Suntech Power Holdings is the other) and by far the largest thin film manufacturer. Just as important, it has a record for relentless, efficient manufacturing and bringing down the cost of its modules. The company makes modules for less than $1 a watt (it was the first to get to that milestone) and regularly beats earnings expectations. It can be thought of as the Intel of solar.

Over the past two years, it has put additional energy into building solar parks and has signed deals to build utility-scale solar parks in North America, Inner Mongolia, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

GE, of course, is GE. The company has the assets to try to compete directly. A second large company in cad tel will likely revive the debate on whether increased production will impact raw material costs.