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On April 7, General Electric Co. announced it will invest $600 million in the purchase of thin-film pioneer PrimeStar Solar and construction of the
nation’s largest photovoltaic (PV) factory, capable by 2013
of producing 400 megawatts (MW) of cadmium-telluride
PrimeStar, launched in 2006 based on technology
developed at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, has a factory in Arvada, Colo., with capacity of 40
MW annually. Location of the new factory had not been
determined, but economic development officials in Colorado, Michigan and New York (GE’s home state) began
lobbying for it immediately.
The move was widely viewed as a direct challenge to
market leader First Solar, which this year will have the
capacity to produce 2,300 MW annually. First Solar claims
11. 6 percent efficiency for modules delivering now; PrimeStar claims 12. 8 percent conversion.
GE first invested in PrimeStar in September 2007
and acquired a majority share the following May. It now
assumes 100 percent ownership.
Since 2002, when GE rescued Enron’s wind turbine-manufacturing division from the financial conflagration, the
company swiftly has become a major factor in renewable
energy. It sold 2. 5 gigawatts of wind turbine capacity in
2010, more than half the U.S. market. GE also sells about 40
percent of all the gas turbines for electric generation in the
world, so a month after the Fukushima tsunami, Chairman/
CEO Jeff Immelt was able to tell reporters that a shipment
of GE gas turbines was already westbound across the Pacific
to help fill the gap in Japan’s electric power grid.
GE turbine technology underlies both the clean and dirty
sides of the energy industry. Company founder Thomas Edison built his first hydroelectric generating station in 1882
(in Wisconsin), and GE launched commercial development
of the Curtis steam turbine in 1897. About 6,000 large GE
steam turbines are in service around the world, producing
power from coal plants, nuclear plants and concentrating
solar plants. They’re backed up by more than 6,000 GE gas
turbines making electricity around the world.
The nuclear power plant database maintained by the
World Nuclear Organization ( world-nuclear.org) shows
that GE built about 32 percent of the 104 nuclear power
plants still operating in the United States. This means that
GE nuclear reactor designs may be generating about 3. 8
percent of the nation’s electric power. The company’s wind
turbines may now make half of that. New data from the
Energy Information Administration suggest that the United
States’ non-hydro renewable sources will produce more
electricity than the whole nuclear industry sometime this
summer. Now it looks as if General Electric wants to lead
that charge. —SEth MASiA
Implementing Local Smart Grids
Isolated villages in Japan have a history of audacious self-determination and an innate passion for participation.
In 2005, I visited one of these towns as part of a wood
biomass research project. Kuzumaki is a small town of 8,000
in the mountainous middle of Iwate Prefecture, 50 miles
from the coast. A bit over a decade ago Kuzumaki decided
to fight climate change its own way, one wacky idea at a
time. By the time I got there it had become an eco-tourist
destination. In 2010, Kuzumaki hosted more than 500,000
visitors (about 40 visitors for each resident!) who came
to marvel at its wind farm, a biogas generator powered by
cow manure from its famous dairy (which has been supplying non-contaminated milk as part of the disaster relief
effort), a biodiesel refinery fueled with used tempura oil,
photovoltaic-roofed schools and modern elder-care facilities heated by wood pellets made locally in Japan’s first
pellet mill, established more than 30 years ago.
When the earthquake struck, Kuzumaki was already
generating a lot of its own electricity. Nonetheless, when
the regional grid went down, it took the town with it. Electricity was out only for a day. But townspeople wonder what
might have kept their local grid live.
A smart grid could have kept many of the lights on in
A smart grid can also let
Japan rebuild its grid using
a lot of intermittent renewables like solar and wind.
How so? Using the same
price and control signals:
If wind power picks up in
the middle of the night (as
it often does), prices will
drop and price-responsive
loads (smart appliances,
electric cars, etc.) will buy
the cheaper power. When a
cloud floats between the sun
and PV panels in the middle
of the day, supply drops and
prices go up, and some loads
will decide to hold off a bit.
This keeps the grid in balance — all without needing to add
new power plants or new energy-storage technology.
Smart grid technology can allow small regions of the
grid to temporarily disconnect and operate independently.
Demark has a large test project doing exactly this. Many of
the lights in Kuzumaki could have stayed on.
A plant manager explains
operation at Kuzumaki’s
solartoday.org SOLAR TODA Y June 2011 13