updated 4/7/2011 12:21:24 PM ET 2011-04-07T16:21:24

General Electric is going to build the largest U.S. solar panel factory, part of a $600 million dollar bet on the future of solar power in the country.

The new plant will employ 400 people and produce enough solar panels to power 80,000 homes per year, GE said Thursday. The company isn't saying where the plant will be located, but it does say that there are multiple locations being scouted.

GE says its thin film solar panel has been certified as the most energy efficient of its kind by the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado. The technology for the panel, called CdTe thin film, lends itself to low-cost, large-scale manufacturing.

GE has focused its solar efforts on thin-film technology, which the company sees as more versatile than traditional silicon-based solar panels.

It said it bought the remaining stake in PrimeStar Solar, a maker of thin-film solar panels in which GE first took a majority stake in 2008.

The move makes the Fairfield, Conn.-based company a more formidable competitor to First Solar Inc., the world's biggest stand-alone photovoltaic solar company.

GE Chief Executive Jeff Immelt has said the company views solar as an opportunity similar to wind, a business GE entered about a decade ago and has grown into a multibillion-dollar revenue stream.

Global demand for photovoltaics, which convert sunlight into electricity, is likely to increase by 75 gigawatts over the next five years, GE said in a statement.

GE said the plant will produce enough panels to power 80,000 homes annually.

"Our plan to open a U.S. solar manufacturing facility further demonstrates our confidence in this technology and is just the first phase in a global, multi-gigawatt roadmap," said Victor Abate, vice president of GE's renewable energy business.

GE also announced more than 100 megawatts of new commercial agreements for solar thin-film products.

(Msnbc.com is a joint-venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal. GE holds minority interest in the latter.)

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