GE: Solar business is our 'next wind'

(CNET) -- General Electric plans to give its solar business a charge in two years with the introduction of panels with the same solar cell material used by industry cost leader First Solar.

In 2011, the energy giant expects to produce solar panels made with cadmium telluride, a thin-film solar cell material, said Michael Idelchik, vice president of advanced technologies at GE Global Research at the EmTech conference here on Wednesday.

The company now sells solar panels that use silicon solar cells, but its long-term bet is on thin-film and specifically cadmium telluride because it offers the cheapest cost per watt, he said.

Last year, GE's energy division took a majority stake in Golden, Colorado-based PrimeStar Solar, for its cadmium telluride cell technology. GE is now developing a product around that aimed at utility and commercial customers.

Solar at GE is a relatively small part of its sprawling energy portfolio, which covers everything from nuclear power plants to natural gas turbines. But GE expects that solar has the potential to grow rapidly, as its multi-billion dollar wind business has done over the past five years.

"Solar is definitely the next wind for us. It's not there yet but it's moving very rapidly," said Idelchik. Solar is more expensive than wind right now, but GE expects that renewable energy mandates will help drive growth and bring costs down, he said.

Thin-film solar cells offer lower production costs than the incumbent silicon because thin-film cells use far less material.

Over the past five years, several solar companies have formed to make thin-film cells from a combination copper, indium, gallium, and selenide (CIGS), which are still not in the market in high volumes. GE's cells will be made from a compound of cadmium and tellurium.

Silicon cells are durable and more efficient at converting sunlight to electricity than thin-film solar cells with the most efficient commercial silicon cells over 20 percent. But GE Research projects that it can boost the efficiency of cadmium telluride to 12 percent and potentially higher, Idelchik said.

"We are excited about it because it can produce in diffuse light," he said. "The module (panel) life is 20 years -- that's what the customer wants. It has the right production costs and right efficiency target."

Asked how its cadmium telluride products will differ from First Solar's, Idelchik said that GE's device would be more "flexible for customers." During his presentation, Idelchik said that GE is looking at ways at managing an entire solar array in a large installation built by a utility or commercial customer.

After his talk, he said that GE is developing technology to recycle the solar cell material, as cadmium is a very toxic if it enters the environment