Finally, the two great issues of our day -- energy and health care -- come together.
Earlier this month, General Electric formally announced that it would develop its own line of cadmium telluride solar panels in conjunction with PrimeStar Solar and sell the panels to developers of utility-scale solar parks starting next year.
A number of observers, however, wondered why. Panel prices have continued to plummet and the flood of new competitors has helped turn solar panels into a commodity; in 2009, in fact, GE shut down a crystalline silicon solar plant.
The answer in part turns out to lay in material science research taking place in other parts of GE, particularly the health care group.
"We are at the forefront of thin films," said Bruce Norman, the technology leader for GE's solar business and one of the speakers at next week's Solar Summit 2010 sponsored by Greentech Media.
Many of GE's digital X-ray technologies essentially revolve around exploiting thin films to exchange electrons and/or photons, he noted. Cadmium telluride also shares some of the processing characteristics of gallium arsenide, a semiconductor employed in X-ray imaging.
Perhaps even more directly, the company will also take advantage of encapsulants and other materials developed for organic light emitting diodes, or OLEDs. Like thin film solar cells, OLEDs degrade over time and the degradation can accelerate with exposure to moisture and the outside environment. Sealants have been a huge issue for the CIGS market. Conceivably, this gives GE at least a few of the tools it will need to get into CIGS as well.
If GE can leverage the work of its worldwide research labs, it could change the characteristics of the thin film market. First Solar has long dominated the field in cadmium telluride solar cells and in the process has become the world's largest solar manufacturer. First Solar, however, sells modules with efficiencies that hover around 11 percent and boosting efficiencies has become more difficult and expensive as the number has climbed. Suddenly, one of the biggest employers of condensed matter physics is interested.
Much of GE's research, arguably, would be comparatively inexpensive: the health care group has already paid for a good portion of the basic science. In a sense, IBM is pursuing a similar strategy -- repurposing materials from lithography and chips for water purification -- but IBM licenses its technology, whereas GE uses its technology in-house.
GE hasn't said what the efficiencies of its panel will be, but the company has said it wants to come out with panels that will be market leaders.
In a sense, the cadmium telluride strategy is similar to the strategy GE took last year when it jumped into sodium metal halide batteries for trains and the grid. Japan's NGK has enjoyed a virtual monopoly in this sub-segment of the battery world as the only major supplier of sodium sulfur batteries.
Norman further expanded on GE's strategy in solar. The company will target its equipment to developers building utility-scale solar parks that provide one or more megawatts of power. GE will sell the equipment to developers, and in many cases help the developer design the power plant and prepare the proposal to utilities, but GE will not own the power plants or operate them.
"It is not our intention to compete with them [power providers]," he said.
The company will sell solar panels and inverters separately but will also try to package them in the same installation.