In a coup for the renewable energy industry, GE announced Thursday that it plans to spend $600 million on a plant to build solar panels. The factory will be the largest of its kind in the U.S., and when it opens in 2013 it will be able to annually crank out enough thin-film solar panels to power 80,000 homes. The high cost of solar panels has kept many people from installing them, but competition from America's largest company could make them more affordable. Is this a sign that solar energy's day has finally arrived?

Solar is going mainstream: This is "a smart move" for GE, says Ariel Schwartz at Fast Company. Worldwide demand for photovoltaics will soar in the next five years, "as businesses and consumers quickly realize that banking on renewables may be a better idea than relying on rapidly-depleting non-renewable resources." And the thin-film cells that GE will make are much more flexible than the clunkier (though more efficient) old technology, so they're more likely to catch on with consumers.
"GE building astoundingly thin solar panels (and the biggest solar factory in the U.S.)"

And the competition will lower prices: Before GE's announcement, a company called First Solar has wielded "a virtual monopoly" on the thin solar panel market, says Eric Rosenbaum at The Street. GE's new factory, along with its acquisition of PrimeStar Solar, means the industry is about to run into some serious competition for the first time. And GE claims it can produce the panels more efficiently than First Solar. This all should drive prices down, which will make renewable energy more affordable than ever.
"Move over First Solar: GE ups ante in thin film"

Still, solar power will need help competing with oil: Don't overestimate GE's clout, says Paul Ausick at 24/7 Wall St. Even with its massive plant, GE's production capabilities "will be well short of First Solar's 2,300-megawatt capacity." And the real obstacle for clean energy isn't a lack of competition, anyway. It's the massive subsidies the government continues to throw at Big Oil. Until that ends, "fossil fuel burning will always be cheaper than using alternative fuels."
"Big move in solar; clean energy subsidies lag those for fossil fuels"