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WFES Interview: Total's Arnaud Chaperon

VP of Electricity and Renewable Energies on the future of solar power

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Getting new energy systems off the ground is always challenging, says Arnaud Chaperon.
Getting new energy systems off the ground is always challenging, says Arnaud Chaperon.

Arnaud Chaperon, Vice President of Electricity and Renewable Energies for Total shares his views on the solar industry.

What are the biggest challenges facing the solar industry in the next three years, both globally and regionally?

Getting a new energy system off the ground is always a long, hard process, and solar energy is no exception. Until grid parity is achieved, ways have to be found to offset its inherent extra cost compared to conventional power generation to make it attractive. That’s why many countries have a policy of subsidies & tariffs to promote the growth of solar energy.

However, the sustainability of these policies is being eroded in Europe because of their increasingly high cost, which is borne not only by governments, but also by end users in particular — they pay the difference on their electricity bills. That’s why the core challenge facing solar energy is significantly reducing costs as fast as possible so that it becomes financially competitive.

There are three main avenues for cutting costs:

  • Technological innovation, both to develop new products and to optimize industrial processes along the value chain.
  • Scaling up to mass production with world-scale fabs to reach module price below 0.6 $/Wp within the next five years.
  • Reducing significantly the balance of system (BOS) cost by optimizing the installation process

How is Total preparing for the future in solar energy?

Total is assertively working to secure the future of solar photovoltaic energy. Our strategy is proof of that, built on technological differentiation, integration across the value chain and reach-to-market.

Solar technologies still have a way to go to reach maturity, but are expected to benefit from spectacular advances in materials science in the coming years. Materials science is a strong growth focus for Total through an ambitious R&D policy built on partnerships with world-leading academic institutions, and will directly benefit our solar energy assets.

Integration across the entire value chain is not an end in itself, but is necessary to capture production synergies and drive faster competitiveness for this energy system. Different segments of the value chain bear relationships to different industries and have different competitiveness drivers. Silicon purification has similarities to refining and heavy chemicals; mass production of photovoltaic cells resembles microelectronics; and module and system production operations can be located closer to consumers, to allow for customer service. To improve our competitiveness, we have to expand our solar activities across the globe and invest in world-class production facilities.

But investing heavily in photovoltaics doesn’t make sense without a solid reach-to-market position, comprising networks of distributors and installers and stronger partnerships with utilities, construction companies and architects.

In the field of concentrated solar power, Total is particularly proud of the milestone represented by the Shams project. In this segment, we are focusing on power generation.

There are many developments still to come, in the strategically related areas of energy storage and desalination.

How does sponsoring WFES 2011 fit into Total’s strategy for solar energy in the coming year?

In recent years, Abu Dhabi has taken a very proactive approach to renewable energies. It has launched the Masdar initiative, which is sponsored by our CEO, Christophe de Margerie; it is home to the headquarters of the fledgling International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA); and it has set renewable energy targets for 2020.

As a partner of the emirate for more than 70 years, we would like to congratulate it on these choices and encourage it to continue along this path. Our involvement in Shams and our ongoing support for the WFES are ways in which we are doing this.

Where do you think the main industry driver is/will be coming from — business, government or consumers?

To be honest, until grid parity is achieved — until solar energy no longer needs subsidies to be competitive with other energy sources — all three groups have a role to play in its growth.

Governments will have to implement policies to support solar energy; consumers need to actively choose solar energy; and businesses must develop the necessary technology and make the necessary investments. The challenge is enormous. In its Solar PV Roadmap Vision Scenario, the International Energy Agency forecasts that solar energy would account for 11% of global electricity generation in 2050. This scenario is based on average annual growth of nearly 20% in the coming decades. More than ever, the industry must demonstrate commitment and dedication.

Where are the commercial opportunities for CPV technologies?

Compared to solar photovoltaic energy, which is already on an aggressive roadmap to reduce cost trough technology and strong competitivon among a larger number of players racing for growth, concentrated solar power still has many challenges to meet to reduce costs.

That said, I believe that both technologies will grow side by side and will not always be direct competitors. That’s because they do not target the same applications. Photovoltaic is in particular well designed for off-grid & rooftop applications, while concentrated solar power requires direct sunlight and entails a centralized generation process. It requires vast areas subject to strong sunlight, which means transporting the electricity generated to consumer regions.

At present, it enjoys one major advantage over solar photovoltaic energy: the energy generated using concentrated solar technologies can be efficiently stored. The original concept of Shams project combining concentrated solar power with gas to optimize the efficiency of the power block is also bringing significant advantage.

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