March 25, 2023

Exports of U.S. Gas May Fall Short of High Hopes

Now, the same companies that had such high hopes for imports are proposing to salvage those white elephants by spending billions more to convert them into terminals to export some of the nation’s extra gas to Asia and Europe, where gas is roughly triple the American price.

Just like last time, some of the costly ventures could turn out to be poor investments.

Countries around the world are importing drilling expertise and equipment in hopes of cracking open their own gas reserves through the same techniques of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling that unleashed shale gas production in the United States. Demand for American gas — which would be shipped in a condensed form called liquefied natural gas, or L.N.G. — could easily taper off by the time the new export terminals really get going, some energy specialists say.

“It will be easier to export the technology for extracting shale gas than exporting actual gas,” said Jay Hakes, former administrator of the Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration. “I know the pitch about our price differentials will justify the high costs of L.N.G. We will see. Gas by pipeline is a good deal. L.N.G.?  Not so clear.” 

Even the terminal operators acknowledge that probably only a lucky few companies will export gas because it can cost $7 billion or more to build a terminal, and then only after a rigorous federal regulatory permitting process. The exploratory process to find a suitable site for a new terminal alone can take a year and cost $100 million, operators say, and financing can be secured only once long-term purchase agreements — 20 years or more — are reached with foreign buyers.

“It’s a monumental effort to put a deal together like this, and you need well-heeled partners,” said Mark A. Snell, president of Sempra Energy, which is based in San Diego and is applying for permits to turn around a Hackberry, La., import terminal for export. “There are only a handful of people who can do this kind of thing.”

At least 15 proposed terminal projects have filed regulatory applications to export gas, and if all were approved, they could export more than 25 billion cubic feet a day, equivalent to more than a third of domestically consumed natural gas.

Environmental advocates say that kind of surge in demand would produce a frenzy of shale drilling dependent on hydraulic fracturing of hard rocks, an industrial method they say endangers local water supplies and pollutes the air. Dow Chemical, a big user of natural gas, and some other manufacturers express concerns that an export boom could threaten to raise natural gas prices for factories and consumers and, ultimately, kill jobs.

Opponents are already lobbying the Obama administration to reject most of the planned terminals, and protests have already occurred. Sempra, Exxon Mobil, Cheniere Energy and others have already built import terminals on the Gulf of Mexico. With docking facilities and giant gas tanks already built on land they had acquired and received permits for, they have a huge advantage over companies that have not yet built terminals. Cheniere, the only company to secure an export license, already has entered long-term purchase agreements for its L.N.G., and several other companies are only a few steps behind.

Dominion Power, which operates a nearly idle import terminal near Cove Point on Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, is also expected to proceed with a conversion to exports, since it is strategically located near the mid-Atlantic gas fields of the Marcellus Shale.

“You have got to be able to change, adapt as changes take place in the world,” said Michael E. Gardner, manager of the Cove Point plant.

The companies with import terminals now wanting to export won a victory in December when an Energy Department report said exports of L.N.G. could produce $30 billion a year in export earnings without driving up domestic gas prices significantly.

Many energy specialists expect the Obama administration to approve several export license applications in the next couple of years, and exports could begin as soon as 2015.

The plans for a gas export boom are based on the theory that cheap American gas will remain cheap for decades while Asian and European gas supplies remain tight and expensive. Global demand for natural gas is expected to expand for decades as nations seek a replacement for coal, nuclear energy and increasingly expensive oil, energy specialists say.

Eric Lipton contributed reporting from Washington.

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Report Bolsters Case for Large U.S. Natural Gas Exports

The Obama administration has been cautious on whether to embrace large exports of gas out of concern that consumers who rely on gas for heating and cooking could see their utility prices rise. Higher exports could raise costs to manufacturers that now benefit from a glut of cheap gas, some economists warn, although huge terminal projects would generate thousands of construction jobs and gas could be a lucrative export earner.

The new report, prepared by NERA Economic Consulting for the government, concluded that domestic gas prices would not rise sharply as a result of exports and that expanded export revenue would generally help most Americans.

Noting that gas exports could produce up to $47 billion in new economic activity in 2020, when many new terminals would be up and running, the report said, “welfare improvement is highest under the high export volume scenarios because U.S. consumers benefit from an increase in wealth transfer and export revenues.”

Only a decade ago, it appeared that the country’s domestic gas supplies were drying up, and that huge amounts of expensive gas in liquefied form would have to be imported from Trinidad, Africa and the Middle East. But over the last few years, a technological revolution has occurred in shale gas fields across the country, producing a glut that has driven the price of natural gas down by two-thirds since 2008.

The report, the second Energy Department study this year, is likely to be challenged by manufacturing and chemical companies like Dow Chemical warn that large-scale exports that raise domestic gas prices would hurt their ability to compete with foreign firms.

Yet oil and gas companies are eager for exports to bolster the lagging price of natural gas, and the report is likely to spur a competitive lobbying campaign for regulatory approval of export terminals. Executives in the oil and gas industry were enthusiastic about the report. “It’s great news,” said Rodney Waller, a senior vice president at Range Resources, a natural gas producer. “It’s encouraging to see that experts are joining the expectation that we are in a global marketplace and the United States has a huge opportunity to generate economic growth and at the same time reduce our energy costs.”

But several powerful members of Congress, including Senator Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who is in line to be the next chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, have opposed large-scale exports.

In a recent letter to the energy secretary, Steven Chu, Senator Wyden noted the importance of the country’s newfound gas wealth to “improve the economic competitiveness of American manufacturers” and that “U.S. law has long held that imports and exports of energy must be considered differently than other commodities.”

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups have joined the opposition to exports in a bid to limit domestic production, which is increasingly dependent on hydraulic fracturing, a technique that blasts open shale rock with water, sand and chemicals to release gas and oil. Environmentalists say drinking water supplies can be put in jeopardy, a charge disputed by the oil industry.

The Center for Liquefied Natural Gas, a trade group whose members include ExxonMobil, Sempra Energy and Royal Dutch Shell, has argued that more gas exports will bolster domestic gas production and with it expand demand for oil field equipment and steel piping.

The Energy Department report noted that large exports of gas would produce “some shifts in output by industrial sectors” and “the electricity sector, energy-intensive sector and natural gas dependent goods and services producers will all be impacted by price increases.” Industries that are likely to be most impacted, economists say, would be producers of chemicals and fertilizers.

But the report said that natural gas exports could produce $10 billion to $30 billion of annual export revenue. The country now exports some gas by pipeline.

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100-Watt Bulb on Its Way Out, Despite Bill

A rider attached to the omnibus spending bill passed Friday prohibits the Energy Department from enforcing new efficiency standards on light bulbs. The standards require bulbs to use 28 percent less energy to make as much light as the 100-watt staple.

The standards, which will still go into effect Jan. 1, affect only the 100-watt bulb in 2012, but will effectively phase out standard 40-, 60- and 75-watt incandescents by 2014. Under the law, merchants will be allowed to sell their remaining inventory but cannot replenish it.

It was not immediately clear what the practical effect would be of the new prohibition. The requirement that manufacturers stop making or importing traditional 100-watt bulbs remains the law of the land. The rider would simply prevent the Energy Department from assessing fines or stopping sales of scofflaw bulbs.

General Electric, a major bulb maker said it would continue to abide by the new standards despite the Congressional action.

“The provision in the bill does not repeal the lighting standards, but only removes funds for enforcement,” said David A. Schuellerman, a spokesman for the company’s appliances and lighting unit. “We are required to abide by the standards, and, of course, intend to comply with our legal obligation.”

The lighting industry and major retailers have already invested heavily in offering bulbs to meet the new standards, signed into law in 2007 by President George W. Bush, and are unlikely to shift course now.

“Bottom line, the standards are moving forward unabated,” said Noah Horowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has been active in promoting the standards. Calling the delay in enforcement a “speed bump,” he added, “Incandescent light bulbs are not going away due to the standard, they are just getting better. The new ones that meet the standard will use 28 percent less power and look and perform exactly like the old one.”

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Report Calls for Changes in the Energy Department

On Tuesday, the department’s inspector general, Gregory H. Friedman, issued a report calling for a wholesale restructuring of the department’s far-flung laboratories and other operations. He warned that “painful” staff reductions were certain to come as Congress sought deep federal budget cuts in the months ahead.

In one of his more striking criticisms, Mr. Friedman wrote that the department spent nearly $13 billion a year to run 16 separate laboratories but that only about half of that money went toward actual research, with 49 percent paying for overhead and capital spending. That ratio is “out of sync,” he said, and could be improved by combining some operations. The report noted that the Energy Department has three centers for nuclear weapons work, two for Navy propulsion reactors, five for energy technology and 13 for general science. “The department’s research complex is organized essentially as it has been for over a half-century,” it said.

Mr. Friedman called for the creation of an independent panel to examine ways of consolidating the labs.

The Department of Energy, whose origins date from the development of the nation’s atomic weapons program during World War II, was formally created in 1977 by the Carter administration. It has since grown into one of the government’s chief sponsors of advanced research and was one of the largest recipients of stimulus money — $35 billion — in the early months of the Obama administration.

The department has an annual budget of about $24 billion, not counting the one-time stimulus grants, and oversees more than 115,000 workers, including federal employees and contract personnel.

The agency has drawn heavy criticism in recent months for its handling of some green energy projects financed with stimulus money, particularly the loan guarantee to Solyndra, a solar equipment company. The report recommended that the loan guarantee program be placed on a department “watch list” of significant issues.

“Given the significance of the funds involved and the government’s exposure to risk, we believe that heightened and continued focus on this program is necessary,” Mr. Friedman wrote.

His report said that to save money and reduce duplications of effort, the department should also reabsorb the agency that handles nuclear weapons, the National Nuclear Security Administration, which was made a separate organization in 2000 because of security concerns.

Similar recommendations for other departments are likely to emerge as Congress moves to cut domestic spending. A report from a special Congressional committee drafting a plan to cut the deficit by $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion over 10 years is due this month.

The Energy Department had no immediate comment on the new report. But the Republican chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Representative Fred Upton of Michigan, said, “The broad concepts make a lot of sense.”

The report also warned that the department would probably also be forced to cut the $6 billion it spends each year on cleaning up pollution left over from nuclear weapons production. What money remains should be spent on the worst contamination, and not allocated by the state-by-state agreements now in force, it said.

The cleanup program involves two million acres in 35 states and employs more than 30,000 workers.

The inspector general warned that changes in the department’s organization could “have a significant impact” in states like Idaho, New Mexico, South Carolina, Tennessee and Washington, where department facilities and contractor operations are among the largest employers.

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A U.S.-Backed Geothermal Plant in Nevada Struggles

The company is Nevada Geothermal Power, which like Solyndra, the now-famous California solar company, is struggling with debt after encountering problems at its only operating plant.

After a series of technical missteps that are draining Nevada Geothermal’s cash reserves, its own auditor concluded in a filing released last week that there was “significant doubt about the company’s ability to continue as a going concern.”

It is a description that echoes the warning issued in 2010 by auditors hired by Solyndra, which benefited from the same Energy Department loan guarantee before its collapse in August caused the Obama administration great embarrassment.

 The parallels between the companies illustrate the risk inherent in building the clean energy marketplace in the United States, government officials and industry experts say. Indeed, the loan guarantee program exists precisely because none of these ventures are a sure bet.

There are important differences between the fate of Nevada Geothermal and Solyndra, the maker of solar panels that has filed for bankruptcy.

The amount of money the federal government has at stake with Nevada Geothermal — a loan guarantee of $79 million plus at least $66 million in grants — is much smaller than the $528 million investment in Solyndra. There have been no allegations of wrongdoing by Nevada Geothermal or its Blue Mountain, Nev., plant.

Executives of the company express confidence that they can recover and say that the government investment is not at risk, despite the challenges they face because of a high debt load and lower-than-expected energy output at their plant.

 “We are here,” said Brian D. Fairbank, the chief executive, who like other company executives works out of Vancouver, British Columbia, where Nevada Geothermal Power has corporate offices. “We’re doing O.K.”

An Energy Department spokesman said he considered the Nevada Geothermal project a success, noting that the company had a long-term contract to sell its power.

“The Blue Mountain power plant is up and running, generating clean, renewable power and has been consistently making its loan payments on time and in full,” the spokesman, Dan Leistikow, said.

The company also did not hire half a dozen Washington lobbying firms, as Solyndra did, and there is no evidence of White House involvement in pushing the project.

But the Nevada Geothermal project has benefited from the support of a bipartisan collection of Nevada politicians, most notably Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat and the Senate majority leader, who has called his home state the “Saudi Arabia of geothermal energy.”

Nationally, geothermal energy produces only about 3,000 megawatts of power, a minuscule slice of the national electricity supply. The Nevada Geothermal plant generates just 35 megawatts — enough to serve about 35,000 homes for a year — and the company has only 22 employees in the state.

But Mr. Reid has taken the nascent geothermal industry under his wing, pressuring the Department of Interior to move more quickly on applications to build clean energy projects on federally owned land and urging other member of Congress to expand federal tax incentives to help build geothermal plants, benefits that Nevada Geothermal has taken advantage of.

“This project is exactly the type of initiative we need to ensure Nevada creates good-paying jobs,” Mr. Reid said in a statement in April 2010, after he visited the company’s Nevada plant. That was two months before the project even got conditional approval for the Energy Department loan guarantee.

During the tour, Mr. Reid had a chance to see electric generation equipment installed by a company called Ormat Technology, which is a Nevada Geothermal partner. Ormat’s lobbyist in Washington, Kai Anderson, and one of the company’s top executives, Paul Thomsen, are former aides to Mr. Reid.

Just last month, again with Mr. Reid’s support, Ormat secured its own Energy Department loan guarantee, worth $350 million, to help support three other Nevada geothermal projects that are expected to produce 113 megawatts of power.

Mr. Reid has received some support from the industry, in the form of at least $43,000 worth of campaign contributions from the geothermal industry since 2009, according to an analysis of federal campaign finance records.

Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Mr. Reid, said that the senator was proud of his work as an advocate for geothermal power and a broad array of other clean energy projects in his state. But Mr. Jentleson, and the Energy Department spokesman, said Nevada Geothermal company had not received, nor been offered, any special treatment.

“If projects like this did not contain a certain level of risk, alongside their enormous potential for creating jobs and generating clean energy, there would be no need for the bipartisan loan guarantee program,” Mr. Jentleson said.

An Obama administration official also pointed out that the Nevada Geothermal project won the enthusiastic support of prominent Republicans in the state, and of the Bush administration.

When Nevada Geothermal Power was finishing construction on its plant in late 2009, there was ample reason for optimism. Boiling waters are not far from the surface at this remote site, three hours outside of Reno. It had a 20-year contract to deliver power to the state’s largest electric utility company.

Eric Lipton reported from Washington and Clifford Krauss reported from Houston. Kitty Bennett contributed research.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: October 2, 2011

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misstated the amount of federal grants to Nevada Geothermal as $667 million.

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Solyndra, Solar Firm Aided by Federal Loans, Shuts Doors

 President Obama praised the company, Solyndra, for its advanced technology during a visit last year. But in a statement on Wednesday, Solyndra said its business had run into trouble because of difficult global business conditions, including slowing  demand for solar panels, and stiff competition.

The Energy Department, which approved the funding, said China’s subsidies to its solar industry were threatening the ability of Solyndra and other American manufacturers to compete. The price of a solar array, measured by cost per watt of capacity, has fallen 42 percent since December 2010, the agency said.

Two other American solar companies, Evergreen Solar and SpectraWatt, also sought bankruptcy protection in August, and both said competition from Chinese companies had contributed to their financial problems.

In the case of Solyndra, some experts said that regardless of the competition, the company’s unique designs, which were expensive to manufacture, were to blame for its failure.

Solyndra was promised loans of up to $535 million under a guarantee program authorized by Congress as part of the 2009 stimulus package. The Energy Department has made more than 40 promises of guarantees, of which Solyndra was the first. It has committed $18 billion in guarantees and expects to allocate several billion dollars more by the time the program finishes at the end of September.

The government calculates premiums for the guarantees, essentially a loan fee based on the risk of default, but it picks up the cost of the premiums for the companies in the subsidy program. By that yardstick, it has spent $2.4 billion in credit subsidies for the program.

Solyndra’s troubles have been growing for some time. Republican budget-cutters in Congress have viewed it as a model of poor government investment.

“In an apparent rush to push stimulus dollars out the door, the Obama administration wasted $535 million in taxpayer funds in guaranteeing a loan to a firm that has proven to be unviable in the global market,” said Representative Cliff Stearns, the Florida Republican who is chairman of an investigative subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

He said the Energy Department might have authorized the guarantee because an Oklahoma oil man who was a donor to the Obama campaign, George Kaiser, was an investor in the project. In a joint statement, Mr. Stearns and Representative Fred Upton of Michigan, the chairman of the committee, said, “We smelled a rat from the onset.”

But the Energy Department dismissed that assertion, saying that Solyndra applied for federal help during the Bush administration and that Obama-era officials merely finished the process the Republicans had begun.

The department says government subsidies are essential to keep the United States competitive in renewable energy, and not all companies will succeed.

“The project that we supported succeeded,” insisted Damien LaVera, a spokesman for the Department of Energy.

“The facility was producing the product it said it would produce, and consumers were buying the product,” he said. “The company struggled because the market has changed dramatically.”

Although the government typically guarantees loans made to a company by a commercial bank, that was not the case for Solyndra. Solyndra borrowed the money from the Federal Financing Bank, part of the Treasury Department, so in effect, the government was lending the money to the company directly. The Energy Department gave Solyndra a conditional guarantee for $535 million, in multiple stages, contingent on reaching a variety of milestones, and to date, it had received $527 million.

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Panel Hears Complaints on Pensions at Delphi

“It is frightening to even think about allowing this precedent to stand,” said Bruce Gump, a retiree of Delphi who lost part of his benefit when the federal government took over Delphi’s pension plan in bankruptcy — even though other Delphi retirees got special payments to shield them from such losses.

The difference between Mr. Gump and his luckier neighbors was their union status. Retirees who belonged to the United Automobile Workers and two other unions while at Delphi got their full benefits after the bankruptcy, because of an unusual side agreement with General Motors, which was honored even as G.M. also went into Chapter 11 that year. Retirees like Mr. Gump who were not union members, or who belonged to smaller unions, did not get such help.

Mr. Gump and others who testified argued that this two-tiered outcome had undermined the rule of law in bankruptcy, where retirees with underfunded pensions were normally considered unsecured creditors, whether they belonged to unions or not.

The hearing, by a subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, came at a time of mounting public frustration over pension rules that cushion some retirees, while others see their benefits shredded.

The federal government offers pension insurance for workers at companies that go bankrupt, but workers at a few companies — like contractors to the Energy Department and NASA — are turning out to have better pension coverage. Meanwhile, states and municipalities have stayed out of the federal pension program, leaving their workers at the mercy of increasingly hostile taxpayers.

The question of pension guarantees, and who pays for them, came up shortly after G.M. went into Chapter 11 two years ago with financing from the United States Treasury. E-mail messages were introduced to help explain the process.

In the messages, officials from the Obama administration’s Auto Task Force asked G.M. executives how they intended to handle the pensions at Delphi.

Delphi had once been a division of G.M., and was still a major supplier in 2009. Ten years earlier, when it was spinning off Delphi, G.M. promised the autoworkers’ union that if its pension fund ever failed at Delphi, they could come back to G.M. to be made whole, through special payments called “top-ups.”

There was no precedent for any company making such payments.

Matthew Feldman of the Auto Task Force warned G.M. that honoring the 10-year-old promise “could get messy,” and expressed uncertainty about whether the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation would permit it.

But Walter Borst, G.M.’s treasurer at the time, replied that the pension agency could not throw such a wrench into G.M.’s plans. “Our reading of the benefit guarantee is clear, that it’s for the benefit of retirees, and not the P.B.G.C.,” he wrote.

Some lawmakers said it appeared that G.M. had been calling the shots, even though it was bankrupt and dependent on federal life support.

Ron Bloom, who testified for the Treasury’s Auto Task Force, said G.M. had complied with all relevant laws while in Chapter 11, adding that he was also troubled by the losses some parties suffered.

The controversy over Delphi’s two-tiered pension outcome may foreshadow a similar policy decision that Congress must make in the coming months, over whether to appropriate money to NASA to cover the cost of a promise it made in 1996, to top up the pensions of its primary space shuttle contractor, United Space Alliance of Houston, if its pension fund was ever terminated. Mr. Obama’s budget proposal for fiscal 2012 asks Congress to appropriate about $550 million for that purpose.

The promise is coming due now because the space shuttle program is ending and United Space Alliance will no longer have the revenue needed to cover the cost of the plan. If NASA fulfills its promise, the company’s retirees will not be subjected to the pension agency’s insurance limits.

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G.E. Plans to Build Largest Solar Panel Plant in U.S.

“For the past five years, we’ve been investing extremely heavily in solar,” said Victor Abate, vice president for G.E.’s renewable energy business. “Going to scale is the next move.”

The plant, whose location has not been determined, will employ 400 workers and create 600 related jobs, according to G.E. The factory would annually produce solar panels that would generate 400 megawatts of energy, the company said, and would begin manufacturing thin-film photovoltaic panels made of a material called cadmium telluride in 2013. While less efficient than conventional solar panels, thin-film photovoltaics can be produced at a lower cost and have proven attractive to developers and utilities building large-scale power plants.

G.E. has signed agreements to supply solar panels to generate 100 megawatts of electric power to customers, including a deal for panels generating 60 megawatts with NextEra Energy Resources.

G.E., a manufacturing giant, operates in a range of energy businesses, from nuclear power plants to natural gas turbines. It has been aggressively expanding its energy portfolio, particularly through acquisitions.

Mr. Abate said G.E. had completed its purchase of PrimeStar Solar, the Arvada, Colo., company that made the thin-film photovoltaic panels. G.E. said the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently certified that a PrimeStar solar panels manufactured at its factory in Colorado had set a 12.8 percent efficiency record for cadmium telluride technology. Conventional solar panels typically are 16 to 20 percent efficient at converting sunlight into electricity.

“We believe we’ll be a cost leader, a technology leader and we’re excited about our position in a 75-gigawatt solar market over next five years,” said Mr. Abate.

The global conglomerate’s entry into the highly competitive photovoltaic market is likely to prove a significant challenge to First Solar, the thin-film market leader and the dominant manufacturer of cadmium telluride panels.

Also at risk are start-ups like Abound Solar, a Colorado company that in December obtained a $400 million federal loan guarantee to build factories to manufacture cadmium telluride panels.

G.E.’s initial panel manufacturing capacity will be a fraction of the more than 2,300 megawatts of capacity that First Solar, based in Tempe, Ariz., plans to have online by the end of 2011.

But Mr. Abate said that G.E.’s solar effort would parallel the rise of its wind energy business.

“It’s a $6 billion platform and it was a couple of hundred million dollars in ’02,” he said of the company’s wind division. “When you look at G.E., we’re very good at scale. In ’05, we were building 10 turbines a week. By ’08, we were doing 13 a day.”

But as with its wind business, G.E. will face competition from low-cost, government-subsidized Chinese manufacturers.

The United States government has offered a range of subsidies to help American solar panel makers, including loan guarantees for new factories. G.E. said it was not applying for a loan guarantee but was exploring applying for state and federal manufacturing tax credits. 

Prices for conventional silicon-based solar modules have plummeted 50 percent in recent years and are expected to continue to fall, in large part because of the rapid expansion of Chinese manufacturing capacity. That has put particular pressure on thin-film companies to increase the efficiency of their panels and maintain a technological edge.

Mr. Abate said G.E. would focus on improving the 12.8 percent efficiency of its panels as well as lowering costs.

“We see our way to much higher efficiencies than that,” he said. “We probably can cut costs 50 percent over the next several years.”

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