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GE Building Astoundingly Thin Solar Panels (and the Biggest Solar Factory in the U.S.)

You know those solar backpacks they sell? The ones you can't imagine anyone buying? Well, GE is trying to make them a lot more ubiquitous. They're working on making solar panels thinner and more flexible, but still efficient. Since—as with all parts of life—almost everyone prefers something good-looking but less functional to something clunky but super-efficient, GE is working overtime to bring these thin film solar cells up to speed.

This week, the company announced that it has taken the skinnier solar panels farther than they've ever been before, achieving record efficiency for a single cadmium telluride thin film solar cell—a 12.8% conversion rate of sunlight into usable energy. Cadmium telluride solar cells are considered to be the most affordable thin film solar cells on the market. This is still a much lower efficiency than standard crystalline silicon solar cells, which have achieved a peak efficiency of 19.6%. But thin film cells have much wider applications—they're cheaper, they work better in nasty weather conditions, and they're light enough that they work well for the aforementioned solar-powered backpacks and cell phones. No one can resist the opportunity for more solar backpacks.

Perhaps more notably, GE also announced this week that it will be producing its new ultra-efficient thin film cells at what will be the largest solar panel factory in the U.S.—a 400 megawatt behemoth that will generate enough panels to power up 80,000 homes each year.

Why is GE so interested in ramping up its solar capabilities? "Over the last decade, through technology investment, GE has become one of the world’s major wind turbine manufacturers, and our investment in high-tech solar products will help us continue to grow our position in the renewable energy industry," said Victor Abate, vice president of GE’s renewable energy business, in a statement.

It's a smart move. Worldwide demand for photovoltaics is expected to grow by 75 gigawatts over the next five years as businesses and consumers quickly realize that banking on renewables may be a better idea than relying on rapidly-depleting non-renewable resources. For some perspective, the U.S. won't have 75 gigawatts of solar power on tap until 2020. And the government offers all sorts of subsidies for solar panel producers—and GE certainly knows a thing or two about hitting up the government for free money.

A word of caution to GE: keep your panels clean. Because as we saw in the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition's recent scorecard, the business of producing solar panels can have some major environmental consequences.

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

[Photo by Flickr user alancleaver_2000]

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