There may still be a lot of naysayers about solar power, including Bill Gates, but one industry titan isn't overlooking the power source. General Electric (NYSE: GE) -- maker of nuclear, combined cycle, and coal gasification plants -- has not only made a bet on solar; it thinks solar power will be cheaper than fossil fuel power in five years.

In an interview last week, GE's global research director said he thinks within five years we could see costs fall to $0.15 per kilowatt hour, making solar attractive even for residential customers. Predictions like that are one thing coming from deep within the solar industry, but when a power plant giant like GE says it, it should hold weight even for the most skeptical investor.

A world of thin film
GE competes in the same space as First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR), Nanosolar, and Sharp in making thin-film solar panels. But the conglomerate is behind the curve and is still taking baby steps compared with industry rivals. When competitors First Solar, Suntech Power (NYSE: STP), and LDK Solar (NYSE: LDK) are measuring their capacity in gigawatts, GE is still talking megawatts. The company's highly publicized 400 MW facility in the U.S. isn't even scheduled to open until 2013.

But GE has more financial firepower than any other solar manufacturer on the planet. If the company's cadmium telluride panels are as efficient and cost effective as the company hopes, it could build out capacity quickly. And while the company hasn't started building power plants like First Solar and SunPower (Nasdaq: SPWRA), it obviously has the capability to do so if necessary.

Foolish bottom line
If GE is predicting that solar power will compete head to head with fossil fuels within five years, I have a tendency to believe it. And if any company has the capability to do it, GE is it.

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Fool contributor Travis Hoium owns shares of First Solar and SunPower. You can follow Travis on Twitter at @FlushDrawFool, check out his personal stock holdings or follow his CAPS picks at TMFFlushDraw.

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