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Technology for Good: A Half Century of GE Solar

Words by Leon Kaye

This is the third in a series of posts entitled Technology for Good: A Historical Perspective From GE.  Last week, GE released all their of annual reports in one interactive data visualization.  This interactive data viz app  pulls together 120 years of their annual reports, showcasing GE’s long-standing tradition of technology for good. Learn more about GE’s history of innovation and see GE’s new Data Visualization in action.  GE is a 3p Sponsor.

Space-age energy sources . . . solar energy, fuel cells, thermionic converters, and solid-state thermoelectric . . . broaden the company’s work.

- From the introduction to GE’s Annual Report, 1959

GE’s interest in solar energy began in a very exciting yet nerve-wracking era. Those glamourous years that witnessed the jet age, JFK, and Mad Men were also when America was preoccupied with the Cold War and competing against the Soviets with mastering space exploration. GE was front and center during the space age, and the company’s legacy of innovation continues to this day during a time of rising energy prices and global instability.

While oil prices rocked the American economy during the 1970’s, GE ramped up its research and development on solar energy. The company’s solar R&D began before Jimmy Carter plunked solar panels on the White House and a young California governor named Jerry Brown sponsored tax incentives for residential solar installations. In 1974, GE partnered with the National Science Foundation to demonstrate how solar power worked at a Boston area school. That year alone, solar was an integral part of GE’s R&D $352 million ($1.6 billion in 2012 dollars) budget. Other projects outlined in the company’s past annual reports include the linking of solar energy technology and heat pumps to offer home builders an alternative heating option in 1976, and a year later, updated photovoltaic technologies. By the end of the 1970’s, concern over the Three Mile Island accident and another series of oil shocks led to GE’s discussions of future solar developments, one of which was “solar central receiver power plants that use heliostats to convert the sun’s energy to electricity.”

The 1980’s and 1990’s, an era of cheap oil, were a time when GE and other companies stepped back from developing solar technologies. But over the past decade, the company renewed its investment in solar. In 2002, GE scientists researched new designs that reduced the number of silicon wafers needed in solar panels. Its solar business interests also moved offshore. In 2007, GE Energy Financial Services invested in an 11 megawatt solar power field in Portugal, which at the time was the largest of its type in the world. That same year, GE’s solar and wind business portfolio had reached $7 billion.

Meanwhile GE launched the Ecomagination initiative, a holistic approach that greens the company, pushes subsidiaries to reduce their carbon footprint and invests in clean energy startups and commercial partnerships. Ecomagination has inspired students to build and race soap box cars fueled by solar and the sale of home solar kits through warehouse stores.

This decade, GE will accelerate its investments into solar even more. Researchers scattered around the company’s research laboratories are inventing new solar films and creating improved wafer designs. Its 2010 annual report described solar as the next “big bet” in renewables, and with oil prices poised to climb nowhere but upward, that ambitious bet will result in new technologies that will help make solar even more efficient and cost effective. Watch for GE’s reach to influence the way we live, from transportation to our energy grids.

Learn more about GE’s annual report data visualization  and see how GE is taking leadership in transforming the 21st century economy.

Leon Kaye, a history and international business major, is a journalist, sustainability consultant and the editor of GreenGoPost.com. He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and Inhabitat. You can follow him on Twitter.

Photo courtesy Ecomagination.

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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