GE picks Aurora for solar plant
The high-tech PrimeStar Solar factory for thin-film panels will employ 355 and open next year.
By Mark Jaffe and Greg Griffin The Denver Post

General Electric’s selection of Aurora for a state-of-the-art solar-panel manufacturing plant breathes new life into a clean-energy sector in Colorado that has been battered by economic turmoil, global competition and shifting political priorities. GE will begin retrofitting an existing warehouse near Interstate 70 and Tower Road in January and start producing panels next year at the $300 million PrimeStar Solar plant, which will employ 355 people. “With a PrimeStar fabrication plant here, you see a really strong cluster of solar companies emerging in Colorado,” said Chris-tine Shapard, executive director of the Colorado Cleantech Industry Association. “GE wouldn’t have picked Colorado if we hadn’t had the workforce and the talent that they need. That differentiates Colorado from many other states.” Solar companies operating here include Longmont-based Abound Solar, Thornton-based Ascent Solar Technologies and Denver-based Abengoa Solar, which is owned by a Spanish company. The state also is home to the SolarTAC research park in Aurora. “This is big business, and we are ready to take it mainstream here in Colorado,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said Thursday about GE’s bet on solar in the state. He spoke to a crowd of roughly 1,000 at the Aurora Economic Development Council’s annual dinner at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Denver. New York had been Colorado’s primary competition for the PrimeStar Solar plant. Colorado won because it had a technology head start and a facility that could quickly be turned into a factory, said Victor Abate, head of GE’s renewable-energy business. The technology to be used in the factory was developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden and PrimeStar, an Arvada-based company GE bought in April. State economic development officials also identified a warehouse in Aurora that could be converted into a factory with annual production capacity of 400 megawatts of solar panels, enough to power 80,000 homes. “We could take the talent we had here, and we found a facility we could make work so we could get to market sooner,” Abate said. Abate said construction would start on the country’s largest thin-film solar plant in January and be producing panels for the market in 2013. GE will invest $300 million to retrofit and expand a 200,000-square-foot former L’Oreal Worldwide warehouse in the Majestic Commercenter. The company hopes to double the building’s size within the next two years. Many states interested When GE announced in April plans to build the plant — using technology developed by Colorado startup Prime-Star — it set off a pitched battle among 10 states. At the end it came down to Colorado and New York, which made a very generous bid, according to Colorado development officials. “There was a tremendous amount of interest across the country,” Abate said. Aurora will provide GE with up to $20 million in tax rebates on manufacturing equipment and sales taxes, provided GE makes the purchases. Adams County will rebate up to $6 million in personal property taxes. The state will provide $2 million, most of it for job training. The factory will be “highly automated, sophisticated, clean-room technology,” Abate said. It will provide a range of operations, inventory control and maintenance jobs. “It is a very high-tech thing,” he said. GE already has 1,200 employees in Colorado at its energy-services division in Greenwood Village, a medical-systems manufacturing facility in Englewood, an analytic instrument manufacturing plant in Boulder and an office for its control solutions services business in Longmont. In April, just after GE announced plans for the factory, Colorado’s congressional delegation, Hickenlooper and university leaders wrote a letter to GE highlighting the state’s commitment to renewable energy. “As state and federal collaboration can facilitate innovative economic opportunities such as GE’s proposal, we stand ready to provide any additional help to attract this facility to Colorado,” the letter said. PrimeStar was created in 2006 by Ken Zweibel, who worked at NREL for 25 years; Joe Beach, a Colorado School of Mines physics professor; and Fred Seymour, former director of technology for Newmont Mining. The company received $6 million in private capital, $780,000 from NREL and $3 million from the U.S. Department of Energy. GE took a minority stake in 2007. Industry difficulties Three U.S. solar-panel makers have filed for bankruptcy in the past three months. The highest-profile failure was California-based Solyndra, which had received a $535 million federal loan guarantee. The problem solar-panel makers face is declining prices in traditional silicon solar cells produced by subsidized Chinese manufacturers. GE will employ thin-film technology that applies a micro-layer of Cadmium telluride on a flexible substrate to create a solar cell. Positioning Colorado as a leader in clean energy was a priority of former Gov. Bill Ritter, but the effort lost momentum after the economic downturn and change in administration. Ritter said Thursday that credit goes to Hickenlooper for landing the GE plant. The effort began more than two years ago. He noted that tax credits created in 2009 helped lure GE and Arrow Electronics, which is moving its headquarters to Arapahoe County. “At the time, we believed the two things would work together — the tax credit and the new energy economy,” he said. “It allows companies to create high-paying jobs in a burgeoning industry.” Mark Jaffe: 303-954-1912 or [email protected]  ; Greg Griffin: 303-954-1241 or [email protected]

Gov. John Hickenlooper listens as Victor Abate, head of General Electric’s renewable-energy business, speaks at the Aurora Economic Development Council’s annual dinner Thursday. Karl Gehring, The Denver Post