By Michel Rose
PARIS, Oct 29 (Reuters) - French energy giants Total and EDF said they were joining forces with French research institutes and schools to create a solar energy research institute south of Paris, with a 150 million euro ($206.5 million) budget.
The planned Ile-de-France Photovoltaic Institute (IPVF), scheduled for construction next year in Saclay, is intended to compete with leading institutions in the United States, Japan and Switzerland.
The group, which includes France's prestigious engineering school Polytechnique and government research institute CNRS, aims to attract about 200 researchers by 2016.
"We want to be among the very best, at least in the top five research hubs in the world," Jean-Francois Minster, Total's scientific director and head of the new IPVF, told Reuters in an interview.
Research activities will focus on five programmes, including research on high-efficiency silicon cells and thin-film solar cells made using chalcogenide materials and environmental impact studies.
France decided under former president Nicolas Sarkozy to invest 2.5 billion euros in the Saclay campus, where some top schools and research institutes are already based. EDF started building its own research and development centre there earlier this month.
Minster said the location was attractive because of the concentration of science students and specialised private firms, in addition to a research tax credit (CIR), which means companies can get up to 40 percent of R&D spending in tax refunds.
"It's an innovation campus with very high-level students. What is important is the ecosystem we're in," Minster said, pointing at a recent MIT research paper that ranked the Saclay campus as one of the world's top eight R&D clusters. [link:]
Total is the majority owner of California-based SunPower Corp, one of the biggest solar panel manufacturers in the United States.
The solar industry has been grappling with a global oversupply of panels and falling subsidies in Europe, sending prices into a tailspin in the past two years and hammering industry profit.
But solar energy is becoming increasingly competitive compared with other forms of energy production, and solar power companies will need less and less public subsidies to get projects off the ground, Minster said.
He pointed to a 70 megawatt solar power project Total is helping build in Chile, which he said was the first such project in which no public support would be involved.
Countries such as Italy and the southern United States, with a combination of high electricity costs and ample sunshine, will soon see the same boost to solar energy as photovoltaic cells become more efficient, he said.