GE Next Victim in Solar Shakeout

Nov. 6, 2009
As the solar market is cratered by overcapacity and falling prices, GE closes Delaware solar-panel manufacturing facility.

For nearly a decade, the solar energy market advanced at a blistering pace, averaging over 50% growth per year. But that momentum hit a screeching halt with the onslaught of the global recession.

As federal subsidies withered in countries like Spain, and lines of credit vanished worldwide, many solar projects found themselves without financing, forcing manufacturing facilities to slow down their production of products, as prices for polysilicon, PV and thin-film solar panels cratered within the industry.

The solar market today is in the midst of an upheaval as firms face a glut of manufacturing capacity and unsold equipment, while strained companies close or sell off major chunks of their operations to stay alive.

The latest signal of the solar industry's struggles came when General Electric announced its intention to shut down its lone solar-panel manufacturing facility, in Newark, Del., citing industry pricing had fallen below the cost of manufacturing.

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"The closing was based on the challenges that are being faced throughout the solar industry," said Milissa Rocker, spokeswoman for GE Energy. "The overcapacity levels are twice that of demand and industry pricing is below the cost of producing the panels."

The Newark facility, which employs 82 workers, will shut down production of manufacturing crystalline silicon panels on Jan. 1, 2010, while operating in limited capacity before closing in June. All of its workers will be laid off.

According to a report in the Associated Press, the plant has the capacity to produce 34 megawatts of panels annually and could be expanded to 68 MW.

GE, however, had seen enough of the darkening atmosphere of the solar market. In just the last year, the price for crystalline silicon panels dropped by nearly a third, while financing for solar installations around the world was drying up.

Rocker emphasized that GE has not given up on solar.

"It's important to recognize that we're not exiting the solar industry and that we remain committed to our solar customers," she said. "We're going to shift our resources from the manufacturing of crystalline silicon modules to the development of new products."

One area GE will focus on more intently is in PrimeStar Solar Inc., in which GE is a majority stakeholder. PrimeStar Solar is in development of a thin-film, non-crystalline silicon technology, which GE believes could be a breakthrough for the market.

GE is also actively moving into the production of inverters to the solar industry. Inverters are more commonly seen in the wind industry. In solar, it would convert the direct current generated by a solar system into an alternate current consumed by a home's appliances.

While GE might be shifting its focus in the field, the solar industry overall continues to struggle to find its footing in an increasingly difficult market.

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