European dependence on Russian fossil fuels is huge and undesirable. That awareness has gone down widely after the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. Europe wants control over its own energy supply and the future is sustainable. In the REPowerEU plan, the ambitions for renewables in the energy mix are therefore increased: 45 percent by 2030. Among other things, this creates a framework for tightening the EU Solar Energy Strategy – 600 gigawatts of installed inverter power by the end of this decade.
However, there is also dependence when accelerating the energy transition. Products such as batteries and solar panels come largely from China and political relations with that country are increasingly on edge. Europe therefore wants to attract production to itself. 40 percent of domestic demand should be made within the borders of the European Union (EU) by 2030. The European Commission recently introduced the Net-Zero Industry Act. Pursuing an industrial policy is no longer taboo for the EU, not even for the member states. What does this mean for the future of solar panel manufacturers in Belgium?
Soltech started manufacturing solar panels in 1989. This made it one of the European pioneers in pv. However, the company did not escape the collapse of the European solar industry when China took over the market. In 2013, the plug was pulled out of production and it continued as a developer of high-quality custom solar panels, especially for integrated applications. In 2021, the curtain also fell on these activities. However, with the entry of Bas van de Kreeke, together with 5 more investors, the company is experiencing a resurrection. What drew him to Soltech and how high is the bar?
‘I come from construction and infrastructure. In that world, too, the energy transition and working towards CO2 neutrality is an important theme. In that context, I have long been interested in the possibilities that solar panels offer. When I came across Soltech, I saw a story that was true: by integrating pv into building components, you can generate green electricity while saving costs. A lot of knowledge and experience had already been built up in this area. This also made my entrepreneurial heart beat faster. We started 2 years ago with an ambitious plan, the construction of a new factory at Thor Park Genk – the innovation hotspot in the field of sustainable energy in Flanders.’
Where the new production site of Soltech should have already been running, there is talk of postponement. However, on June 15, 2023, the time has come and the plant will start up. It has an area of 5,000 square meters and a capacity of 10 megawatt peak. In addition, by adding a fourth laminator, the annual production can be quite easily increased to 16 megawatt peak. Van de Kreeke acknowledges that this too, however, would be a drop in the global solar violence. But at the same time he speaks of a very beautiful niche that offers great opportunities.
Van de Kreeke: ‘we do not rely on bulk; the standard crystalline silicon solar panels that flood the market. We make aesthetically beautiful products-modules with printed foils in all kinds of colors and patterns and semitransparent laminates – in all kinds of formats. These are intended for integrated applications, for example in building facades and roadside noise barriers. We do this through a highly automated process. In 2 years we grew from 7 to 35 people, our team now has a nice mix of experience and new talent. Our order book has been filled for a year. So we look to the future with great confidence. There is still a lot of solar panel potential, for example, we are already thinking about new products such as tandems with thin-film pv.’
The story of Fred Conrads is partly similar to that of Van de Kreeke. Conrads has 20 years of experience in corporate management. He also ran his own businesses, for example in hygienic panels for clean rooms in the food industry. Six months ago, he took over Evocells, a solar panel manufacturer in Baillonville near Durbuy in Wallonia. This company started in 2013, when the rollout of solar panels stalled because the Walloon government stopped subsidizing. Evocells comes from an installation company that was dissatisfied with the quality of Chinese solar panels and decided to manufacture high-quality modules itself.
Conrads: ‘in the beginning, Evocells mainly produced for”own use”. In 2020, around 50 percent went to other installers. When I entered June last year, there were already 2 out of 3. Over the years, production increased, from 6,000 solar panels in 2015 to 13,000 at the end of the corona crisis, to 30,000 last year. Next July we will install a new laminator, that’s the plan. This means that we will more than double our capacity. In addition, in 2024, together with Socom group, we will open a new 50 megatwatt peak plant in Luxembourg, a country where people are very attached to local products. Our ambition is also great.’