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GE makes push into solar energy

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General Electric Co. (GE-N) kicked off a big push in solar power, unveiling plans to build a new factory that it says will be the largest in the United States and a large round of orders for solar products.

The largest U.S. conglomerate, also a major producer of wind- and gas-powered electric turbines, said it would invest some $600 million US in the push, including the 400-megawatt factory that will employ 400 people in a yet-to-be-chosen location.

GE has focused its solar efforts on thin-film technology, which the company sees as more versatile than traditional silicon-based solar panels.

It said it bought the remaining stake in PrimeStar Solar, a maker of thin-film solar panels in which GE first took a majority stake in in 2008.

The move makes the Fairfield, Connecticut-based company a more formidable competitor to First Solar Inc. (FSLR-Q), the world's biggest stand-alone photovoltaic solar company.

GE Chief Executive Jeff Immelt has said the company views solar as an opportunity similar to wind, a business GE entered about a decade ago and has grown into a multibillion-dollar revenue stream.

Global demand for photovoltaics, which convert sunlight into electricity, is likely to increase by 75 gigawatts over the next five years, GE said in a statement.

GE said the plant will produce enough panels to power 80,000 homes annually.

"Our plan to open a U.S. solar manufacturing facility further demonstrates our confidence in this technology and is just the first phase in a global, multi-gigawatt roadmap," said Victor Abate, vice president of GE's renewable energy business.

GE also announced more than 100 megawatts of new commercial agreements for solar thin-film products.

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