Chicago, Illinois [RenewableEnergyAccess.com] Near the French Alps in the southeast corner of the country’s hexagonal borders, the Rhone-Alps region has long been established as France’s center for nanotechnology and electronics research. Meanwhile, the region has quietly become a leader in solar energy research, production and applications.
The French government recently deemed the region and its surrounding areas as the “solar competitiveness cluster in France,” going by the name of Tenerrdis, and has rewarded it with the strong incentive program. R&D programs in some areas of the region can benefit from local networking, various tax breaks and access to research staff free of social charges.
France’s competitiveness clusters are similar to trade associations, but kept in the same geographic area. For Tenerrdis, this area is a triangle of cities: Chambéry, Grenoble and Lyon. The cluster works to stimulate the partnerships of R&D between companies, public and private research centers, and economic and institutional businesses to boost renewable energy projects and create new jobs.
Last year, a French state initiative to curb traditional energy consumption and encourage renewable energies changed the face of the French solar industry overnight. France’s former Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, doubled the feed-in tariff (FIT) for on-grid photovoltaic (PV) systems on private residential buildings from EUR 15 cents [$0.20 cents] per kWh to EUR 30 cents [$0.40 cents] per kWh.
The country’s current PV market is ever-more attractive to energy consumers thanks to the increased FIT and other regulations such as a regional subsidy for Rhone-Alps. But to ensure the cost of PV electricity stays competitive with other energy sources, continuous research needs to be conducted to keep PV’s various technologies current and economical.
The country’s National Solar Energy Institute (INES), located in the Savoie Technolac science park near the city of Chambéry in the French Alps, hosts several R&D facilities working on current PV issues such as thin films and solar-grade silicon. INES, who attracted researchers to its facilities from about 15 locations, has doubled its work force since 2004 and has set a goal for 180 researchers by 2009—two-thirds of them in PV.
With an average PV cell getting a 15-percent conversion efficiency, the institute has also set itself a midterm goal of developing a multicrystalline silicon cell with 20-percent conversion efficiency.
In addition to the science park, the region also boasts the top players in France’s PV industry focusing on the industry’s hottest issues:
• Rhone-Alps has a test facility that has been operating since 2005—the Restaure platform. Funded in part by the French Atomic Energy Commission, it holds all the equipment necessary for crystalline silicon cells fabrication and is intended to serve everyone working in PV in France. The Commission, working out of Restaure, is currently working toward the 20-percent conversion efficiency target by developing a concept designed to reduce the amount of silicon used in thin film multicrystalline silicon cells. This facility will move to INES in Savoie Technolac by the end of the year.
• The company FerroPem is currently working on its “Photosil” project in Savoie Technolac to develop a new, metallurgy-based method for producing silicon for the PV market. Launched in the 2004, the project moved from the research phase to the operational phase just last year, with initial results expected sometime this year. The project ultimately aims to develop an industrial-scale version of the process for real-world use.
• Tenesol, a sudsidiary of Total and Electricité de France (EDF) based in the city of La Tour de Salvagny, opened a module production facility last September that has the capacity to produce the equivalent of 220,000 m2 (about 2.3 million ft.2) of PV modules each year, an amount capable of producing 30 MW of PV electricity. It continues its vertical integration in the PV industry largely thanks to the Rhone-Alps region’s resources, says Roland Barthez, Tenesol’s managing director.
• Photowatt International, France’s PV parts-producing leader and owned in part by Canada’s ATS Inc., adds that the region’s R&D facilities are a big bonus. Especially in Savoie with INES, [these research centers] open up a number of particularly interesting perspectives for solar energy,” says Eric Laborde, the European director of Photowatt Technologies. Located near Lyon, the company produces ingots from silicon to make cells, plates, and multicrystalline modules. The company’s prosperity in the region is evident: In the last 18 months, the company added 150 new staff; for the next 18 months, the company is completely booked for orders. With more than 600 employees on-site, Photowatt has had strong growth during the past three years, and is expected to soon reach a 100-MW capacity annual production.
• The SilPro (Silicium Provence) company opened a multicrystalline silicon factory in 2006 that, according to the company, is the first in the world entirely dedicated to producing solar-grade multicrystalline silicon for the PV industry. Production is expected to start next year, according to Philippe Veyan, president of the Photon Power Technologies, one of SilPro’s shareholders. SilPro’s goal is to produce 10,000 tons of silicon by 2010.
As France is a bit of a latecomer in the PV game, the government-imposed incentives help balance the industry interest versus the consumer interest. Building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) systems in France get the highest feed-in tariff of EUR 55 cents [US $0.75 cents]-one of the highest worldwide at present. Another bonus for the French market: A tax credit system applying to the whole country, the “Crédits d’Impôt,” refunds 50 percent of the material costs, not to exceed EUR 8,000 [US$10,180] however.
The French can also receive a 50-percent reimbursement paid as a tax credit, up to EUR 8,000 ($10,875 USD), for the investment of installation of a PV system, building-integrated or external. Consumers have figured out how to get the best deal out of it, too. Most private households have opted for a power system rated between 2 and 2.5 kW, which costs about EUR 16,000 ($21,750 USD), and half of this-the EUR 8,000 maximum-can be reimbursed. The return on investment for a 2- to 3-kW BIPV system on a private residence is about eight years.
In some areas, local subsidies exist to ease the financial burden for residents switching to PV energy systems. In the Rhone-Alps region, this subsidy is calculated on system size and the expected yield and, like all tax credits in France, applied to the resident’s next tax return.
Kimberly Elsham coordinates press relations for the French Technology Press Office in Chicago, part of an international network of thirteen press offices operated by UBIFRANCE, the French Agency for International Business Development.