Startup to invest billions to build mega solar panel factory in France

Five to six billion euros of investment in total, including 1.3 billion by 2025?; a production target of 20 gigawatts by 2030, that is, as much (or almost) as the solar energy installed across Europe last year, with 10,000 jobs created as a result: the numbers of the project carried out by Carbon are dizzying.

“We were forced to ‘think big’ to face the challenges and put ourselves in a position to recreate an entire industry that almost no longer exists on our continent, justifies Pascal Richard, vice president and co-founder of the start-up. up. This is all the more essential because in the solar sector, only players of a certain size can argue with suppliers and really weigh in on the value chain.”

The shock of Covid

The ogre appetite of the former commercial director of SMA France

and his acolytes was born out of the Covid crisis. “A real trigger,” he says. In the photovoltaic sector, the pandemic first damaged the supply circuits in Asia, revealed the “unreliability of conventional sources” and caused an uncontrolled increase in prices.

Another obstacle identified by the founders of Carbon: the post-pandemic recovery of the economy would necessarily generate “colossal energy needs”, in contradiction to – among other things – the foreseeable drop in hydroelectric production, due to repeated droughts, or even the cascading shutdowns of the French nuclear reactors…

The war in Ukraine and its consequences on tariffs (gas, oil, electricity) only accelerated a little more what Pascal Richard predicted: the “need to invest massively” in solar energy, a “clean, abundant and ultra-competitive” energy.

“If we don’t do it now, we risk remaining dependent on ‘hostile’ international forces, who will set the prices for us and decide for us the future of our energy transition.” Pascal Richard

(Co-founder of Carbono)

An operational pilot site from 2023

To cross this path, take on the “challenge of sovereignty and re-industrialization” and maintain itself in the “great environmental ambitions of the European Union”, Carbon will have to raise astronomical sums year after year. A first fundraising is being finalized with private partners. Others will follow. The French state and the EU must also withdraw the checkbook.

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The start-up’s leaders expect to have several hundred million euros available from 2023 to expand their team, place first orders and launch a “pilot site” in a yet-to-be-determined location.

Objective: “Start producing a few hundred megawatts of panels to test the technologies and test some elements that are still theoretical. It is necessary to innovate, of course, but adapting to market demands. By way of comparison, if we develop the Minitel at the time of the Internet, do we go straight to the wall?! »

This (large) test balloon will serve as a “springboard” for the opening in 2025 of a “gigafactory” that would initially have 3,000 employees, then “more than 10,000” by 2030. Production capacity would increase at the same time by 5 GW at 20 GW.

“The Project of a Life”

This gigantic factory will be able to cover the entire process: melting European low carbon silicon ingots, cutting wafers, manufacturing cells and assembling panels. “To achieve this, we will need machines, but also solar glass, silver, aluminum, chemical gas… It is imperative that we can control these known critical elements. And that is a big challenge.”

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Even with almost everything to be done, Carbon is already proclaiming its ambitions: within eight years to join the 10 largest photovoltaic panels in the world – an elite today composed of eight Chinese manufacturers, a South Korean group and an American company.

“The European market is the second largest market in the world, so it is robust and offers huge development prospects. If we offer a reliable and quality offer, we will be recognized and we will be able to grow very quickly”, projects Pascal Richard.

At the foot of the mountain, the vice president of the young shoot says he feels “a mixture of pressure, enthusiasm and humility”. Well aware, he says, that “this adventure is the project of a lifetime.”

Stephane Barnoin

SMA is the world leader in photovoltaic inverters. in numbers

5.2%: i.e. the share of solar energy in total electricity production in the EU in 2020. This proportion is constantly increasing: this summer, photovoltaic panels supplied 12.2% of electricity on a European scale (7.7% in France in the same period).
+ 12.6%

: in 2021, the electricity produced by the French solar sector reached a new record at nearly 14.3 terawatt hours (TWh), up 12.6% from 2020.

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