Carbon, the hope of a giant photovoltaic panel factory in France

Lyon-based industrial start-up Carbon is preparing a very ambitious giga-factory project with 10,000 employees that would produce photovoltaic panels in France by 2030 (Loic VENANCE / AFP/Archives)

Amid a debate over European energy sovereignty, industrial start-up from Lyon Carbon is preparing a very ambitious project for a 10,000-employee giga-factory that would produce in France by 2030 photovoltaic panels, now massively imported from Asia.

“We can no longer depend on China for such a strategic product!” says Pascal Richard, CEO of Carbon, interviewed by AFP.

Nine of the world’s ten biggest manufacturers are Chinese and South Koreans, supported by their huge domestic markets.

The solar panel, in fact, is at the heart of French and European energy projects.

A bill “for the acceleration of renewable energies” is due to be presented in mid-September to the Council of Ministers.

It provides for the multiplication of possibilities for installing solar panels (mandatory equipment in large car parks, the possibility of installing them on abandoned roads, etc.) and the simplification of some procedures – criticized, incidentally, by environmental NGOs.

To make up for the French delay in its European partners, Emmanuel Macron announced in February that he wanted to increase projects tenfold to reach 100 gigawatts (GW) installed in 2050, up from 13 in 2022.

And once again: these goals were set before the war in Ukraine and the widespread awareness of Russian gas dependence, which also led the Commission to present in May its “REPowerEU” plan that aims to quadruple photovoltaic production in the EU by 2030.

Carbon intends to take its part in this pie of “European energy sovereignty”, explains Mr. Richard, former French director of the German SMA (inverters for photovoltaic energy).

By 2025, Carbon plans to build a first panel factory with an installed capacity of 5 GW, employing 3,000 people and increasing to 20 GW and 10,000 people by 2030. A huge scale effect on prices, its founders hope. The implantation site – classified Seveso – is not stopped, but will have 80 hectares.

– Hunting for investors –

The investment required for this fully integrated project is expected to amount to 1.3 billion euros for the first phase, “5 to 6 billion” in total.

The hunt for investors is launched, in particular French and European subsidies. A first fundraising “of several tens of millions of euros” is planned for the first quarter of 2023.

Lyon-based industrial start-up Carbon is preparing a very ambitious project for a 10,000-employee giga-factory that would produce photovoltaic panels in France by 2030.
Lyon-based industrial start-up Carbon is preparing a very ambitious project for a 10,000-employee giga-factory that would produce photovoltaic panels in France by 2030 (Eric PIERMONT/AFP/Archives)

Mantra of the five equal partners, including the Grenoble oven manufacturer for the photovoltaic industry ECM: “the entire value chain will be integrated” as soon as the raw material is sourced – polysilicon from Germany or Norway for the first time.

Ingots, wafers, cells and therefore final panels will be entirely “made in France”, where other players in the European market are content to assemble Chinese components. “There is no project of this scale” in Europe, assure the directors of Carbon.

Large energy companies are already integrating carbon panels into their solar plant foreshadowing, says Laurent Pélissier, CEO of ECM, “because they want to diversify their supplier portfolios and no longer find themselves in situations where there is no more supply, or with price surges”.

This is the case of the Compagnie Nationale du Rhône (CNR), which announced in May a “massive” investment plan in photovoltaic energy (1 billion euros), via “solarization” of roofs or degraded land.

“With almost the same price, which will be a challenge, and the same performance, it is clear that we will have preference” for Carbon, says Julien Marchal, director of new energies, regretting having “lost sometimes 6 months in certain projects because of the ‘supply’ difficulties.

Solar panels
Solar panels (Jonathan WALTER / AFP/Archives)

“We would also reduce transport risk, currency risk and geopolitical risk, such as when China abruptly closed its factories for its zero covid strategy. The carbon footprint of French panels would also be much better, even more so if recycling exists in the location”, adds this official.

In his eyes, Carbono could even become “the Verkor of solar energy”, referring to this Grenoble start-up, backed in particular by Renault, which will set up a giant battery factory in Dunkirk.

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