In football, the prowess would be called “remontada”. Weakened by the competition at the turn of the 2010s, the photovoltaic panel industry is making a comeback in Europe. Trimmed beard, draped in an impeccable suit, Jan Jacob Boom-Wichers wants to be one of the architects of this revival. After having worked in North America and Asia, the affable entrepreneur was assigned a crucial mission: to build one of the largest factories on the Old Continent.
Cocorico: France won the bet. “We examined six European countries and more than forty sites. France was the most attractive, both in terms of electricity prices and carbon footprint,” says the manager of Holosolis, an offshoot of the European accelerator EIT InnoEnergy. Located in Hambach, in Moselle, the factory will enter service in 2025. At its peak, it will employ 1,700 people and will have an annual production capacity of 5 gigawatts (GW). This is the level that the French start-up Carbon is also aiming for for its future site in Fos-sur-Mer, in the Bouches-du-Rhône. The beginning of a French rivalry? Unlikely. The two manufacturers will have plenty to enjoy their share of the cake.
Solar, a strategic energy
The needs in Europe are enormous. In 2027, the solar capacity installed on the territory should double compared to that of 2022, to turn around 500 GW, estimates the International Energy Agency (IEA). Overlooking the parking lots and the factories, soon in the form of tiles and windows, via l’agrivoltaïsme or huge parks… Solar energy is being rolled out at breakneck speed in the region, as in the rest of the world for that matter. A rhythm that Europe’s bitter dependence on Russian gas, brought to light by the invasion of Ukraine, is not enough to explain. “Who says decarbonization, says electrification of uses. We will have to produce more electricity, and do it quickly. However, the immediately deployable solution is solar”, explains Jules Nyssen, the voluble president of the Renewable Energies Union (SER).
The avalanche of “made in Europe” projects is no coincidence. The reconstitution of a production chain is a question of sovereignty. At the end of 2022, Brussels launched the European Photovoltaic Solar Industry Alliance. Its objective: to bring out a local fabric capable of producing 30 GW of panels per year by 2025. Opposite, Chinese industry continues to establish its domination in the heavyweight category. In the first half of 2023 alone, the IEA counted around ten announcements of factories in China. All set their production ambitions at 20 or 30 GW per year! As for car batteries, there is also the subject of control over supply. China is the leading producer of key panel components. On each stage of the chain, the country is home to 85 to 97% of the installed capacity, figures the IEA.
In its second leg of photovoltaics, Europe also has trouble with the United States. Armed with sound Inflation reduction act (IRA), the country is making eyes at the industrialists of the planet. “The increase in production capacity at our plant in the city of Goodyear, Arizona, has something to do with the IRA,” admits Annegret Schneider, communications manager for panel manufacturer Meyer Burger. In France, Holosolis benefited from a “turnkey” site. For good reason: the land was intended for another photovoltaic player, Rec Solar. Welcomed with open arms in 2020, the Sino-Norwegian company cut power to its tricolor project two years later… to focus on the United States.
A profusion of innovations
In this fierce global showdown, does the bubbling European industry really have the means to take revenge? “The know-how still exists with us. There is nothing irreversible from a technological point of view”, assures Jean-Pierre Chevalier, member of the Academy of Technologies and co-author of an opinion on the development photovoltaics in Europe. In fact, ideas abound. From Nantes, Armor provides organic cells in thin layers. This innovation compensates for low efficiency with its flexibility and light weight to meet new uses, as well as with an excellent carbon footprint. Free of rare metals and silicon, the technology is easily recyclable. How to resolve supply issues. With the Photovoltaic Institute of Ile-de-France, Voltec Solar prefers to work on new panels capable of achieving a staggering efficiency of 30%. The company is targeting a production capacity of 5 GW in France by 2030.
To relaunch the sector, and quickly, the majority of the industry is however relying on more proven solutions, known as heterojunction or TOPcon. In Switzerland, Meyer Burger has chosen the first path. This company has long supplied China with machines, until local players began to produce them themselves. Aware of the risks, the venerable company – seventy years of existence on the clock – upset its model at the start of the decade. It has chosen to jealously guard its tools to produce high-performance photovoltaic modules. The bet worked. Meyer Burger is increasing the capacities of its factories in eastern Germany, in the heart of the former “Solar Valley”.
A tremor is also felt upstream of the sector, where the most energy-intensive activities are concentrated – the most difficult to relocate. The German Wacker, a heavyweight in the production of solar-grade silicon, is preparing to increase its capacity in Norway, when NorSun, which specializes in the intermediate stage of silicon ingots and wafers, doubled its capacity. Soon to be added those of Carbon. In the South of France, the start-up is considering a total project. With the exception of silicon – which will not come from China – it intends to become the sector on its own, or almost. From ingots to silicon wafers, cell manufacturing and module assembly, “this vertical integration effort will make it possible to seek maximum economies of scale and achieve the desired level of competitiveness” , promises its co-founder, Pierre-Emmanuel Martin.
The issue of demand
To make this ambitious 1.5 billion euro project a reality, Carbon benefited from support at multiple levels: regional, national and European. No more repeating the mistakes of the past. By abruptly cutting off the subsidy tap, a number of European states have left the field open to Chinese competition that subsequent anti-dumping measures have hardly curbed. Ten years later, Europe and its member countries are pulling out all the stops: tax credits, reduction in the time required for procedures and issuance of permits, orientation of public procurement… It remains to be seen whether the effort will be sufficient.
At the same time, we must convince private buyers, such as energy companies, to choose “made in Europe” for their gigantic installations. “Of our 17 GW of renewable capacity at the end of 2022 worldwide, we have almost 12 GW of solar, of which nearly 9% in Europe”, illustrates Laurent Becerra, director of renewable activities for TotalEnergies internationally. All volumes will be crucial to enable the sector to lower its costs and improve its competitiveness. But the bet is not won yet. “For the time being, we mainly source our supplies from Asia”, is content to indicate the representative of the French energy company. The group kicks in touch and does not do business with European manufacturers. The sector will need all the vital forces to definitively rewind the bad film of the last decade.
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