19 March 2010


GE increasing investment in thin-film PV

General Electric (GE) says that it is focusing its solar power R&D efforts on thin-film photovoltaic (PV) technology in conjunction with PrimeStar Solar Inc of Arvada, CO, USA, aiming to launch a product for utility and commercial markets in 2011.

GE previously made solar panels using traditional silicon. Silicon solar cells are durable and (at over 20%) more efficient than thin-film solar cells. However, thin-film solar cells offer lower production costs than silicon, due partly to lower material usage and manufacturing costs.

PrimeStar was founded in Golden, CO in June 2006 to develop cadmium telluride (CdTe) thin-film photovoltaic modules using technology from the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), based in Golden. After acquiring a minority stake in September 2007, GE’s power generation division GE Energy of Atlanta, GA, USA took a majority stake in PrimeStar in June 2008.

GE says that, working closely with PrimeStar, it is bringing to bear the full scale of its four GE Global Research operations (in Niskayuna, NY, USA; Bangalore, India; Shanghai, China; and Munich, Germany) to address the challenges required to bring a new product to market.

“After having completed an exhaustive survey of the PV landscape, we determined that thin films were the optimum path for GE,” says Danielle Merfeld, GE’s solar R&D leader in Niskayuna. “The CdTe technology from PrimeStar has great potential [for lower cost per watt],” he reckons. “Bringing together world-class materials expertise, unique materials and systems modeling and design capabilities, and state-of-the-art indoor and outdoor solar testing facilities, GE researchers are innovating across our four global research centers—literally around the clock—to deliver a breakthrough product to market.”

The GE/PrimeStar product is being developed at PrimeStar’s headquarters. A team of PrimeStar technologists with more than 100 years of combined thin-film deposition expertise is working closely with GE researchers, who are focused on several key areas including device efficiency, reliability, production and installation costs, and manufacturability. GE says that hundreds of technologists in Germany, China, India and the USA are currently working on its solar technologies.

The team in Munich (at the heart of the global solar industry) is using indoor and outdoor solar system test facilities where they study finished module performance to identify and address degradation mechanisms and packaging issues. The team also has expertise at the system level, allowing them to define system-level optimized features and metrics for the module.

In China (where most of the world's CdTe raw materials are found) researchers at GE's China Technology Center in Shanghai are focusing on CdTe materials and the impact they have on device performance (with improving material quality and developing advanced materials characterization techniques being key topics).

In India, GE is leveraging modeling capabilities at its John F. Welch Technology Centre in Bangalore. Unlike the exclusively experimental approach favored by many in this field, according to GE, dramatic improvements in device performance and reliability can be realized through a deeper understanding of the materials and basic physics of the device, it is believed. The Bangalore team is hence building comprehensive models to help guide advanced device design.

GE’s research team in Niskayuna is working on all facets of CdTe module development, including material growth, device development and robust process development, using technical expertise spanning diverse fields such as surface chemistry, laser processing and plasma physics, as well as diverse product development experience derived from GE’s other technology-focused businesses (such as healthcare, lighting and batteries).

GE Research projects that it can boost CdTe PV efficiency to 12% and potentially higher (compared to incumbent CdTe PV maker and cost leader First Solar’s 11%). GE says that it is looking at ways of managing an entire solar array in a large installation built by a utility or commercial customer, and also plans a recycling program for its panels.

See related item:

GE takes majority stake in PrimeStar Solar

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