General Electric Co., which made $4.5 billion in the first quarter of this year, has been awarded a $722,000 state grant to help pay for installing GE-made solar panels at its corporate headquarters in Fairfield.
Connecticut Innovations Inc., a quasi-public governmental agency that is giving GE the money, said the grant and similar ones to other large companies are part of an effort to boost interest and confidence in renewable energy technologies.
The state funding comes from the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, which gets its money from commercial and residential electricity customers.
Peter O'Toole, a spokesman for the manufacturing, media and financial services conglomerate, said that the multimillion-dollar project is nearing completion, and similar solar energy systems are being installed at four other GE properties in the U.S. The company expects the projects to serve as models for other company buildings around the world.
GE is installing a 168-kilowatt "direct current solar photovoltaic system" at its headquarters as part of its goal to expand the use of renewable energy and reduce greenhouse emissions. With 840 solar panels made by GE, the system is expected to supply 5 to 8 percent of the energy needed for the complex.
"It's a good demonstration project for the technology," O'Toole said.
Asked why a large, profitable corporation like GE would need financial help from the state, O'Toole said one reason "is to show you have to invest in new technologies. Companies cannot do it alone."
GE got its grant from the On-Site Renewable Distributed Generation Program of the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund, which was created by the legislature in 2000 and is administered by Connecticut Innovations. The fund has provided more than $100 million for projects to bolster emerging technologies.
The average residential electricity consumer pays about 50 cents per month into the Clean Energy Fund, said Emily Smith, a spokeswoman for Rocky Hill-based Connecticut Innovations.
The agency has awarded similar grants to other large companies, including Whole Foods Market Inc., BJ's Wholesale Club Inc. and office supply retailer Staples Inc.
"A lot of people around the state are unsure whether renewable technologies really work," Smith said.
If prominent companies show that solar energy systems can be successful, "people start to say, 'If it works for them then it will work for me,'" she said.
Smith said the strategy is paying off. The number of grant applications is skyrocketing and the Renewable Distributed Generation Program is running out of money.
The generation program has been allocated nearly $33 million for a three-year period, and there is a $4 million cap on any one project, she said.
Smith said officials at Connecticut Innovations did have concerns about public perception of the GE grant, but they hope people will understand that it fits in with the agency's goals of developing clean energy technologies, protecting community health and improving the environment.
Christopher Phelps, program director for the Environment Connecticut advocacy group, questioned the grant, but he also praised the Clean Energy Fund for giving out money for important projects, including solar power systems for homes.
"I think the concern is that these funds would be most effective used to help institutions, companies or individuals who otherwise don't have the resources to invest in clean energy facilities," Phelps said. "It does raise a bit of a question when a company is getting paid to use its own product."