Paul van Gerven
8 April

Now that Europe’s eyes have been opened to the strategic dependence on technology and materials, solar entrepreneur Gosse Boxhoorn is making another attempt to build a silicon plant in the Netherlands.

His first attempt failed because of the credit crunch, the second because of the stranglehold China had taken on the PV industry. But Gosse Boxhoorn, in the distant past CEO of Shell Solar and since then an entrepreneur in solar energy, is giving it another go. Together with business partner Lars Boetje, he’s breathing new life into plans to build a silicon refining facility on Dutch soil. This time not only to provide solar cell producers with raw material but also the fast-growing battery and semiconductor industry.

Compared to ten or fifteen years ago, a new wind is blowing in Europe. Reduction of CO2 emissions has become a priority following the Paris Climate Agreement, and industrial policy is no longer a dirty word since the COVID crisis. The Net-Zero Act, the Chips Act, the Critical Raw Materials Act, the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism – European countries are embracing measures that help fight climate change and/or support local (green) industry.

This makes for a fertile environment for a silicon plant, prompting Boxhoorn to dust off his old plans. “We had the expertise and the network, so we contacted potential customers from before. All turned out to be still interested,” says Boxhoorn. Thanks in part to this flying start, Boxhoorn and Boetje expect to start production of their Resilicon (Resi) facility as early as the end of 2026.

Chemical plant
Credit: Istock/Opla

Congestion

There are plenty of reasons why the Netherlands and Europe should want their own silicon plant, Boetje says. “Ninety percent of silicon is made in China, so we can’t be sure of adequate supply. In addition, Chinese silicon is largely made with energy generated from coal. For example, a recent study shows that in terms of CO2 emissions, the payback period of a Chinese solar panel often equals about its lifetime. And thirdly, report after report shows that slavery is rampant in the production of solar panels in China.”

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By contrast, Resi presents a local-for-local factory that operates completely sustainably, from raw material (metallurgical-grade silicon) to power supply. “We’re also committed to recycling. Silicon is a valuable raw material and more and more solar panels are reaching end-of-life. You shouldn’t send those back to China; you should recycle them locally. Our factory is going to make that possible,” says Boxhoorn.

“Of course, production and recycling of silicon make no sense if it causes more CO2 emissions than it saves downstream. Our plant therefore runs on 100 percent renewable energy. We’re talking to energy suppliers who can guarantee that, through offshore wind farms, for example,” adds Boetje.

Boxhoorn and Boetje aren’t willing to reveal the plant’s location. Their earlier project, called The Silicon Mine, was originally to be located in Limburg, then Groningen. This time around, Resi will also join an existing cluster of the chemical industry. Taking into account the congestion of the Dutch power grid in most parts of the country, there aren’t many locations left to choose from, according to Boxhoorn.

Strategic materials

The biggest stumbling block, now just like before, is funding. Despite Europe’s enthusiasm, Brussels generally has no money of its own on offer. Funding has to come from member states themselves, and recent political developments – pausing the National Growth Fund, for example – aren’t exactly encouraging.

Aren’t Boxhoorn and Boetje worried about this? “We’re counting on the involvement of the Dutch government. After all, why else would it have appointed a strategic materials official at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate?” Boxhoorn points out. He doesn’t fear a lack of interest from private financiers either. “Silicon is an enabler of European growth markets such as battery anodes and chips. Security of supply is paramount in these sectors. That naturally piques the interest of potential investors.”