GE Primestar: Another DOE-Touted Solar Plant Fails

After the collapse of Solyndra last summer, Department of Energy Secretary Chu was called to Congress to explain the bad decision making that led to a $500 million dollar loss for taxpayers. 

Chu's testimony in November 2011 was widely regarded as self-serving nonsense. The Washington Post awarded his claims about the success of the DOE loan program with three Pinocchios, noting that contemporaneous emails should have alerted decision makers that the solar market was changing.

Stung by the criticism, Secretary Chu was eager for a way to prop up the credibility of the DOE's investment in the future of the solar industry. So one day after his congressional testimony, he took a trip to Colorado to tour the solar panel plant of GE PrimeStar.

GE PrimeStar was originally PrimeStar Solar, a startup which used technology developed at the National Renewable Energy Lab and $3 million in DOE award money (given in 2007 and 2008 under the Bush administration) to develop its business. In April of 2011, GE, which had been an investor in the company since 2008, bought the company outright and announced it would build a $300 million production plant in Aurora, Colorado.

The plant was announced just six weeks after Solyndra's bankruptcy, making it cause for celebration at the DOE. A blog on a DOE website announced, "With today’s news, PrimeStar panels become just the latest in a series of solar energy innovations supported by the Energy Department that have started out as promising technologies and are now commercially manufactured products creating jobs in the U.S."

GE was just as thrilled. They produced a slick video titled "GE's Solar Breakthrough" touting the bright future of cadmium-telluride panels like the ones at GE PrimeStar. It's worth watching a bit of this just to get a sense of how certain and inevitable the green jobs future was circa October 2011:

All of the optimism faded last week when GE announced it was laying off about half of the current employees of PrimeStar. And the big new production plant in Aurora? That has been put on hold for at least 18 months. A Denver news outlet tracked down Brian Murphy, one of the founders of PrimeStar, to get his impression of GE's decision and what it meant for the future:

"[Eighteen months] is a graceful way to say something else," Murphy maintains. "What do they really mean by that?... Do you think PrimeStar eighteen months from now is going to rise up and say, 'We have a better cadmium telluride product now?' I don't think it's feasible."...

"We are now in the early-to-mid stages of the death of thin-film photovoltaics," including cadmium telluride, Murphy believes.

In other words, the promised plant is not going to happen. Another government investment in green energy just withered on the vine.


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