Measuring GE's 400 MW solar bid by the micron

IDC Energy Industry Insights Community –

General Electric announced last week that it will be building a 400 MW factory to build cadmium telluride (Cd-Te) photovoltaic modules. While that represents a lot of panels, the real significance of the announcement can be measured not in megawatts, but in microns. That's because GE's bet on Cd-Te means that they have confidence in the availability of enough Telurium to make all their panels. GE, like most mega-corporations, doesn't make bets. It knows there's enough telurium because it has probably figured out how to use a lot less of it in its modules.

The world's leader in Cd-Te panels is First Solar, which will produce about 2.5 gigawatts worth of modules in 2012. When it last revealed its film thickness, First Solar divulged that the active layer of its panels (the actual Cd-Te layer) was about 3 microns thick. However, according to Ken Zweibel of George Washington University, the ideal thickness of a Cd-Te layer is 0.2 microns. Thus, it is hypothetically possible to reduce the amount of Cd-Te in a module by a factor of 6 and get the same (or better) efficiency.

That matters when trying to determine the amount of Tellurium available for solar. In 2008, about 600 metric tons of the stuff was produced, most of which went towards making alloys of steel. Zweibel hypothesizes that available deposits could be harnessed to reach about 3,000 tons of annual production. At 3 micron thickness, if half of all the Tellurium went towards PV panels, that would be enough to produce 3.75 GW of Cd Te panels. That's a little more than the entire 2012 production of First Solar, GE and Abound (the three major CdTe producers).

There's no way that GE would be making this investment if it knew that it could only produce its full capacity of this factory and never grow the business larger. One of the iron-clad rules of General Electric is that it never gets into a business unless it will eventually be the first or second largest player in the market. And the market, by the way, is not just for Cd-Te panels, but the entire PV industry.

That means that GE has either discovered a large Tellurium deposit (very doubtful) or it has figured out a way to produce a much thinner Cd-Te layer. By itself, that's no challenge. But to do so in a mass production environment (as opposed to doing it on a laboratory bench) is a significant feat. And if GE has in fact cracked that code, it will be able to make a much cheaper PV module than its competitors. The production cost to beat is 75 cents/Watt. I wouldn't be surprised if GE, once it gets into full production at its yet-to-be-built plant, will be able to boast of 50 cents/W. And if GE can do it then First Solar, which has the largest Cd-Te manufacturing research department in the world, won't be too far behind.

If I'm correct in my guess that GE has indeed figured out how to make thin film PV panels REALLY thin, then it opens up a new era for the PV industry. Single-company production capacity will soon be measured in the tens of gigawatts, and modules will cost much less than $1/W.

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