PrimeStar founder Brian Murphy on GE layoffs, Aurora solar plant delay, technological doubts

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There are a lot of lingering questions in the local renewable energy industry, and in Aurora, about news that General Electric is laying off employees and putting construction of an Aurora solar plant on hold. Yesterday, we tracked down Brian Murphy, one of the founders of PrimeStar, a Colorado startup GE bought in 2011. Contradicting recent statements from the energy giant, Murphy says the future doesn't look so bright for the company.

A GE spokeswoman told us that last week that the delay in Aurora would be "at least eighteen months."

Murphy, who left the company in 2009 and sold his final shares to GE in 2011, says that this lag is a bad sign for the future of GE's work in the specific area of solar technology he developed -- thin-film panels that use a compound called cadmium telluride.

It's a technology that he says will no longer be economically competitive, but is one that GE is sticking by.

"[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."

Murphy says he has heard from current employees that around seventy Colorado workers are facing layoffs, though GE is not disclosing that information.

The backdrop to this latest news is, of course, the struggling solar manufacturing industry in the United States, where companies face intense pricing competition from overseas.

GE, in its statement last week, says that over the past six months, the industry has shifted dramatically, with a nearly 50 percent drop in global module prices due to overcapacity and declining incentives -- an environment that the company says requires it to "pause" the Aurora plant and focus "efforts to develop the next generation of solar module technology." GE says it is looking to develop technology that will reach a far higher efficiency level and more competitive cost position.

The industry-wide challenges are also a main driving factor behind the news just a week prior that Abound Solar, another Colorado-based manufacturer that also develops thin-film cadmium telluride solar technology, would file for bankruptcy.

Murphy points out that Abound, in the face of layoffs earlier in the year, also said it was going to focus on developing better technology. But instead, months later, it announced its shutdown.

Page down to read more of Murphy's assessment of the PrimeStar's future. "I am clearly disappointed that I see PrimeStar...kind of collapsing, for lack of a better word," Murphy acknowledges.

But Murphy says the latest struggles for GE -- which are also bad news for Aurora -- represent symptoms of much larger shifts in the industry.

Just a quick background on the relevant science in the industry. There are different kinds of materials for photovoltaic solar technologies, including crystalline silicon and thin-film technologies, including cadmium telluride, which PrimeStar uses.

You don't need to know the difference between these types, but the economics behind them are important.

Murphy says that the manufacturing of crystalline silicon has improved dramatically in recent years, making it much more efficient and cost-effective. The reason for this, he says, is a huge increase in supply that forced companies to become more innovative.

These improvements mean cadmium telluride is no longer a competitive technology by comparison, according to Murphy.

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

In the big picture, he says, this is good news. He believes the new, more efficient crystalline silicon is going to help push forward solar technology and manufacturing at a productive pace that will allow us to decrease our dependence on foreign oil.

"The impact is that certain companies, including my legacy PrimeStar Solar, aren't going to succeed," he says. "But at the macro scale, crystalline silicon...[becoming more efficient] is better for the world."

In contrast, GE spokeswoman Lindsay Theile says the company is committed to improving the cadmium telluride technology and will manufacture a better version of it in an Aurora plant once it is ready -- at least eighteen months from now.

"We are confident that cadmium telluride is the technology that is going to be competitive," she says, adding, "These things just take time."

On a personal note for Murphy, it's tough to hear about the layoffs in Colorado from his former company.

"I have 120 people or so that I personally hired at PrimeStar," he says. "What we created at PrimeStar was...a family. For the individuals impacted, it's very disappointing."

More from our Environment archive: "Denver cycling accidents on track for all-time record in 2012"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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