Europe’s approach to research and innovation in photovoltaics needs “systemic” change if the continent is to avoid seeing its solar manufacturing industry entirely wiped out in the coming years.

That was the stark warning issued by Vincent Bes, chief executive of Photowatt, one of Europe’s few remaining integrated PV manufacturers, at a gathering yesterday of leading figures in PV R&D at France’s INES solar institute in Chambery.

Bes was speaking a day after Hanwha Q CELLS announced the closure of its last plant in Germany and the transition of its remaining production operation to Malaysia.

Citing the Q CELLS example, Bes said that without a “systemic shock” to the way Europe’s PV R&D infrastructure is organised, the continent faced the real prospect of losing all its integrated PV manufacturing capability to Asia.

“We won the first battle, which was to create a solar industry,” Bes said, in reference to Europe’s early pioneering work in PV technology. “We lost the second battle and China won everything – not because they were smarter than us, just because they were richer than us and will continue to be.

“In the next battle, if we want to survive, why don’t we merge all the research centres in Europe? There are billions spent [on PV R&D] every year, but if there is no industry, what is the point? There is no point. Specialise each lab in one specific area – one lab in Switzerland could do the ingot, another one the wafer, another the cells.”

Bes also urged, as a matter of necessity, closer working between Europe’s R&D centres and European PV equipment manufacturers such as Meyer Burger and Manz, representatives of which joined Bes in a panel discussion at the symposium at INES yesterday.

“All the ideas you have in your heads, come and work with these people, because if your ideas can’t be transferred into tools, it’s useless – it’s academic, hopeless. I respect schools and academies, but that’s wishful thinking to create jobs in the future,” Bes said.

His sentiments were echoed by Sylvère Leu, chief innovation officer at Meyer Burger, who urged the R&D community to "wake up". Leu highlighted the “very, very tough” time equipment manufacturers were experiencing in the face of competition, primarily from China, where the domestic industry is sourcing more and more materials and equipment locally, effectively limiting China as a potential export market for European equipment specialists.

Leu said that for Europe to compete, it needed to build “gigawatts” of capacity to generate competitive economies of scale, meaning the R&D sector needed to produce innovation “that is ready to use”.

“This is the task. I invite you to fight with us in this hard environment. We have to wake up. I have seen here a lot of strategies, a lot of technologies, but we cannot implement such a lot of tools. We need one focus. There are a lot of ideas, but the problem is choosing one idea and making it happen – this is our requirement.”

Bes agreed that the policy in China of sourcing more PV materials and equipment locally represented the “next step in the extermination of our industry”.

And he outlined the alternative, should Europe decided collectively not to pursue the sort of radical steps he proposed: “If we don’t do that, then we need to accept collectively that, ok, Europe will not be in 20 years able to produce solar cells and modules. Which is fine. We are not able anymore to produce socks. We accepted that situation.”

But the difference Bes highlighted with solar energy is that it is now being frequently touted by the likes of even the normally conservative International Energy Agency as being a major – possibly the world’s largest – energy source within a few decades.

“If we do think in Europe that solar will be the number one source of electricity producers in 20 years, then it’s strategic and we need to change that,” he said, suggesting the responsibility for the sort of changes he had in mind lay with the European Commission.

But Paul Verhoef, head of the renewable energy unit in the commission’s directorate general of research and development, and another panellist at the symposium, said there was a wider job for the European PV industry to communicate what it needs in order for the commission to respond in the right way.

“One can go to politicians either in Brussels or nationally to say we have a problem and we need help, but the first reaction you’re going to get is fine, we’ve seen it, so what do you want help for, what are you going to try new, what is your plan, what can we support? I don’t see the plan," he said.

“So let’s see if we can get some sharp analysis and proposals on the table with which we can collectively go to politicians and say we’ve learned from the past, this is the way we’re tying to reshape it, this is what we want to do, and move forward on that basis. Because otherwise I don’t think you’re going to get a very good reaction,” Verheof said.

Collaboration in R&D

The discussion took place at a symposium to mark the winding up of the SOPHIA (Solar Photovoltaic Infrastructure) project, a four-year EC-funding programme aimed at fostering collaboration amongst Europe’s main solar research institutes.

Over its lifetime, the project has brought together 20 separate organisations and scored a number of significant successes in improving joint working between them, in areas such as module reliability and PV performance modelling.

To mark the end of the project, its organisers published a 'Strategic Vision on Photovoltaic Research Infrastructure' charting a course for future collaboration in European solar R&D.

Although the document does not envision anything as radical as the idea put forward by Photowatt's Bes, it makes a number of recommendations for nurturing future collaboration in areas such as training, shared access to crucial data and the establishment of large-scale pilot production lines.

"Initiatives like SOPHIA must continue to be supported as part of broader package of support for PV research infrastructure," said the project's coordinator, Philippe Malbranche. "Specific support is needed for research infrastructure further downstream, eg for testing and characterisation. Pilot productions facilities are necessary to demonstrate manufacturability. E-infrastructure, which includes the idea of accessing data from the operation of commercial plants, would also be valuable. The training of scientists and the exchange of best practice in experimental procedure would also be supported."

Once it has been wound down, SOPHIA will morph into the so-called Cheetah project, a similar initiative that has already been running for one year and will have another three years window in which to continue the work initiated by SOPHIA in promoting R&D collaboration.