#MakeSolarEU: CARBON's role in reshoring solar manufacturing to Europe

by Bethany Meban - 2 April 2024
The European solar manufacturing landscape is at a critical crossroads. Excess demand, combined with overcapacity on the supply side, has resulted in a record drop in prices for solar modules and other system components. Two things can be true; Europe needs to be part of a globalised solar supply chain to meet climate targets, and we must work harder to support European solar manufacturing.

SolarPower Europe is working to rebuild solar manufacturing in Europe. Why does solar manufacturing matter? Why aren't there more solar manufacturers in Europe? How do we bring solar manufacturing back to Europe?

In the #MakeSolarEU blog series, we showcase the reality and potential of EU solar manufacturing, by interviewing some of Europe’s most important, and innovative manufacturing companies. 


Our series continues with Pierre-Emmanuel Martin, co-founder and President of CARBON, in the week of the European Solar Charter, to talk about the state-of-play of the European solar manufacturing landscape and the importance of developing the EU’s research and innovation base.

1. Why is building solar systems in Europe important?

It’s important for mainly 2 reasons. First, we should consider that solar is the masterpiece of the future of the low-carbon electricity production all over the world, and especially in Europe where we have been pioneer for this type of energy which gives us a lot of opportunities because its renewable, easy to deploy massively, and its source is free and abundant. 

Secondly, we need Europe to recover its sovereignty in the solar industry in a global context of higher trade and supply risks because of geopolitical disorders and economic turmoil. It’s a question of resilience, strategic autonomy but also of acceptability of solar in Europe. We saw the disaster with the Russian gas and the issues on supply on critical devices and components during the COVID crisis. We need to avoid any disappointment or disillusion in the future. Let’s be very clear: deindustrialisation leads only to despair and future social and political disasters.


2. So what do we need from politicians to make European solar manufacturing happen?

Europe is unique, with multiple interests and multiple countries that want to arrive at consensus through democracy and debate. So, we must find a way to build something that is strong enough to meet the ambitious goal of delivering 40% of the solar PV components installed each year in Europe, using products made in Europe. We have this goal and we must find a way. I think that through the Net Zero Industry Act (NZIA) we have our first key piece, the Critical Raw Material Act is another one. 

We are not the USA, that switches on policies very swiftly – we will see after the November elections the follow up on the Inflation Reduction Act. We are not India, deciding to stand on our own without any imports. We need the solar panels from China for the moment, but we need our own panels too. There is a way to manage this transition, not having 100% of our panels from China, but at least 40% from Europe by 2030.


So we need political stakeholders to understand that there is no reason for European gigafactories to be less competitive than Chinese ones once we are fully ramped up, at-scale and mastering our ecosystem; mainly the upstream parts. We must implement a regulatory framework that protects any investment in new gigafactories. We know that in France, it's already on the way. So that's why CARBON is really advanced. In Europe, we have to understand that if we want factories financed by private investors and banks, we must give a price premium to generate revenues that are high enough to meet their requirements.

3. How does it feel to be a leading person in the energy transition?

I've been working in renewables for more than 30 years, I worked on the first law in France 25 years ago to welcome renewables into the system. 


Being in the industry for so long, I see the perspective. People might criticise the NZIA, stating that it doesn’t go far enough – and I might agree with them – but there was the same when renewable deployment started to build momentum. In Europe we go step by step and we cherish freedom and democracy. The NZIA is not the end of the story for European solar industry, it’s the beginning of a new page.

4. What do you build and when will your factory be inaugurated?

CARBON main project is to build a gigafactory of 5 GWp yearly capacity, for solar modules, on Marseille-Fos Harbour. It’s a vertically-integrated factory, that will master the core of the manufacturing value chain, from ingoting to modules, through wafers and cells. On the 18th of April, 2024, we submitted our request for building permit. The groundwork will begin as soon as possible in 2025 to inaugurate and start the industrial ramp-up in 2026.


Through the European Solar Charter, governments recognise the decisive role of European solar manufacturers in the strategic supply chains of today and tomorrow: this is a significant mark of recognition for the entire sector! We advocate for swift action and concrete support measures at European level and within the Member States. Namely, applying resilience and sustainability criteria in tenders and public procurement as soon as possible, unlocking support for massive subsidies and establishing dedicated EU funding for solar. CARBON welcomes this new step towards a sovereign and competitive European photovoltaic industry. After the signing of the Solar Pact in France at the beginning of April, a whole dynamic is at work to relocalize, sustainably, the solar photovoltaic value chain in Europe!
Pierre-Emmanuel Martin, President of CARBON
5. Where will your factory get its energy from?

If we consider that we have integrated the full chain of the modules from ingots to modules, we will consume a lot of electricity, around 1.4 TW/h per year, because our factory will be fully electric. We can be considered as ‘electro-intensive’ consumers. So, from this perspective I think that what we we're very lucky in France because we can rely on a strong electric grid and hydroelectric, nuclear, wind and solar power plants that already produce a decarbonised electricity.

We will also power produce on site through our solar plants, which will cover around 5% of consumption. We plan to have other solar assets in the surroundings of the factory – we’re working on it – we intend onsite or local solar power to meet 20% of our energy consumption.

We can be considered as being CO2 free consumers in electricity.

6. How many jobs does your factory plan on creating?

When we’re fully up and running we will generate 3000 direct jobs, mostly workers and technicians but also engineers, managers, researchers and sales and admin positions Our gigafactory will be running 24/7 with around 600 people onsite at the same time.


7. What sets your product apart – what will make a CARBON panel unique?

I won’t enter technological debate saying that this is better than that. We built CARBON with industrial choices at the core of our strategy. We hired highly skilled people from biotech, automotive, semiconductor and solar, who worked in big manufacturing facilities where efficiency in production is the key. We'll use the best technology available on the market. For the moment, we chose TOPCon and TOPCon back-contact for several reasons.


The idea is that we know that we must produce something that is efficient, very efficient, with high-yield and low carbon footprint. So, we’re hiring people that know the end of the story. The end of the story is to be competitive and to manage huge industrial sites in an efficient manner.


Materials and energy represent 70% of our production costs. So I want buyers that come from experienced industry. I want salespeople that come from those big companies that work with very tough competition. We have to produce hundred of millions of solar cells each year at the highest quality, without underperformance. 


Then we have to build our brand – we are now very well known in France. With a brand name you can collect a little bit more from the price, that’s what we want to address for installers or for clients – they get quality, low-carbon footprint, security of supply, services, contracts in European terms, but they also get the brand. We want to be the first choice for our clients in France, and I hope in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, and beyond.

8. What's the company's biggest opportunity?

In the last three or four years there has been an alignment of planets, still in movement. Of course, it’s challenging, but we see that not only investors are very interested, but also our competitors. We know that now there is a way now to find our path – people know that CARBON has very strong ambitions, but so does Europe. It’s the opportunity we have. The opportunity is reinforced by the fact that Chinese manufacturers are in a huge crisis of overcapacity.

9. What would you then say is the company's biggest challenge?

My biggest challenge is Europe – the essence of Europe. Today we are facing significant divergence between two leading EU countries, Germany and France. We know that Germany is not necessarily on the same wavelength as we are in France or in Italy.

Workers are suffering, a lot of small and medium companies are suffering. In France, we experienced the loss of substance of our industrial power in the past – so we know what it looks like and we want to rebuild our industrial strength. We must find a way to reach a kind of consensus between France and Germany. This is the biggest challenge.

I know that CARBON will succeed in the French market, but it's not sufficient. I want the German market for our counterparts, and the same strong industry in Netherlands, in Spain and Italy. Then we will be able to create the Airbus for solar PV.


10. What is the situation in France today for European solar manufacturing?

In France today we have the Pacte Solaire (Solar Pact), so we are fully aligned with the government and a lot of actors within the sector We know what we want. We are working closely with the government on CAPEX and OPEX support for CARBON; there is no doubt that we will receive it. In 2025 we will have the declination of the NZIA fully implemented in France. We passed important milestones but of course we still have challenges to address.

11. Does the inflation Reduction act inspire you or concern you?

From where I stand, I'm not worried. I think that the Inflation Reduction Act is good for the USA, it’s a strong – and clearly expensive – tool. Of course, if the United States gets its own competitive platform industrial platform, and then we don't have a manufacturing base in Europe, that would be a real concern. Because then we would have a situation like we do now with LNG. So, if you don’t want Chinese modules, we could have American modules - but they will be very expensive for us. I'm French, I’m European – I want my country and my continent to recover its solar leadership.

12. Do you think Europe can build 30 gigawatts of solar across the supply chain by 2030?

It's challenging but possible. CARBON will massively contribute to that target. We need other European projects to succeed. Of course, we would prefer to catalyse other initiatives and to be able to say “OK guys, let's do the Airbus of solar together and and consolidate all these assets and co-ordinate”. But if not, we have plans for a second and a third gigafactory in Europe and a road to develop others. Let’s be clear again: this solar reindustralisation in Europe is not an option, it’s a necessity. We need collective mobilisation and strong commitments.

Header image:  Pierre-Emmanuel Martin, co-founder and President of CARBON © CARBON

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