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

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Brian Murphy.
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.

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A solar panel of the type manufactured by GE PrimeStar in Arvada.
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.

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