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GE Courts Turbine Customers for Solar Before Wind ‘Crash’

Cadmium Telluride Thin Film Solar Cell
LeAnna Taber analyzes a cadmium telluride (CdTe) thin film cell using a microscope in a Solar Lab at General Electric Co.'s (GE) Global Research Center in Niskayuna, New York. Photographer: Vijay Paruchuru/Bloomberg

General Electric Co. is trying to convince developers that have bought its wind turbines to double down on clean energy by purchasing its solar panels as well, said Vic Abate, who runs the company’s renewables unit.

Invenergy LLC is planning to install 23 megawatts of GE’s thin-film solar panels at a site adjacent to a 210-megawatt wind farm it operates in Illinois with GE turbines.

It’s GE’s first solar order from a wind customer and Abate said he’s pushing the hybrid concept to other turbine buyers. Offering solar panels may offset an anticipated decline in turbine sales, he said. U.S. developers have curtailed orders for 2013 on concern that a federal tax credit for wind energy will expire at the end of this year.

“It wasn’t until of late that costs came down enough for solar to make sense,” Abate said Jan. 20 in an interview. “Plugging them in to wind farm locations, you already know the community, how to get the permits and secure interconnections to the grid.”

Because winds are strongest at night and solar panels produce power only during the day, installing both at one project location will lower costs for both and make forecasting output more predictable, he said.

“If you control the wind farm and the solar, the concept of intermittency is more manageable,” Abate said.

‘Improves Project Efficiency’

OwnEnergy Inc., a New York-based developer of community wind farms and a GE turbine customer, has considered adding solar panels at about a half-dozen wind farms that it’s planning or has completed, said founder and Chief Executive Officer Jacob Susman.

“Our best customers are municipal utilities and electric co-ops where there’s a real focus on reliability,” Susman said today in an interview. “When you can offer a blended product that improves project efficiency, they like that.”

GE, whose equipment generates more than a quarter of the world’s power, is building a solar-panel factory in Colorado that’s expected to be completed by the end of this year, with the first shipments expected in 2013.

For Invenergy’s project, Fairfield, Connecticut-based GE is providing panels made from copper-indium-gallium-selenide produced by Showa Shell Sekiyu KK’s Solar Frontier unit, which has a partnership with GE.

GE’s factory will eventually be able to produce as much as 400 megawatts of thin-film solar panels using cadmium telluride, a technology similar to First Solar Inc., the largest maker of the lighter, thinner panels that compete with silicon-based photovoltaic gear made mostly in China.

“If we had just 10 percent of our installed wind capacity add solar, it would sell out our new factory for the next six years,” Abate said.

U.S. Wind ‘Crash’

The ability to offer solar equipment as wind incentives expire, as well as expanding turbine sales outside the U.S., may help GE weather a domestic downturn.

As much as 9 gigawatts of turbines will be installed in the U.S. this year, Justin Wu, head of wind analysis at Bloomberg New Energy Finance in Hong Kong, estimated in a report. The market may slump in 2013 after the Production Tax Credit ends, he said.

“The U.S. wind market will likely crash in 2013,” he said. “Uncertainty over the Production Tax Credit extension this year means that little development activity will take place.” The credit provides 2.2 cents a kilowatt-hour for electricity generated from wind.

Vestas Wind Systems A/S, the world’s biggest maker of wind turbines, said it will cut 1,600 U.S. jobs if the credit is allowed to expire. Industry lobbyists are seeking to attach a four-year extension of the credit to legislation to renew the payroll tax cut that Congress is considering now.

GE’s U.S. turbine orders slumped the last time the tax credit for wind expired, at the end of 2003. A lapse next year will have less impact on the company because new markets in Brazil, Canada and Turkey will offset declines in domestic sales, Abate said.

“Less than half our sales were in the U.S. last year,” Abate said. “We’ve all seen this coming for a couple of years now.”

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