Intel ready to help Europe achieve its long stated goal of chip self-sufficiency—but it won’t come cheaply

May 3, 2021, 1:44 PM UTC

U.S. tech giant Intel is willing to help Europe achieve its dream of semiconductor sovereignty, but it’s going to cost. Dearly.

Intel’s CEO Pat Gelsinger, on the job less than three months, had a busy week last week. On Friday, he met with not one, but two EU commissioners in Brussels. The day before he was in Germany for talks with senior government ministers at the state and federal level.  

His message to policymakers: Show me the money.

For a new state-of-the-art chip fabrication plant, Intel would need commitments to the tune of roughly €8 billion euros ($9.6 billion) in taxpayer funding before it starts moving earth, Gelsinger estimates.

Compare that with the reported €1 billion in aid Tesla is slated to receive from Germany in exchange for building one of the world’s largest battery cell plants near Berlin.

If Europe is serious about catching up to Asia, Gelsinger reasons, then it’s going to need taxpayers to absorb some 40% of the price tag—as has been the case in Taiwan and South Korea. 

“A new fab costs at least $10 billion, and you need two of them on one site to utilize economies of scale,” he told German business daily Handelsblatt in an interview. Otherwise, he concludes, the plant wouldn’t be on par with the top production facilities. 

Semiconductor self-reliance

It’s canny timing. Gelsinger arrived in Europe as the world grapples with a massive chip shortage that’s costing sales for major automakers like Volkswagen Group. At the same time, the issue of semiconductor self-reliance continues to climb up the European Union’s policy agenda.

Nearly two dozen member states have backed a joint declaration signed in December to expand Europe’s chip sector. 

Any country willing to stump up that level of support would likely qualify for state aid approval under modified EU rules governing strategic industries. First introduced in December 2018 for investments in microelectronics including chips, Tesla’s mammoth project outside Berlin qualified for taxpayer handouts in January under a similar scheme.  

Where would the plant go?

One candidate most capable of shouldering an €8 billion euro investment is Bavaria, home to chipmaker Infineon. Germany’s richest state recently won a prestigious 1-billion-euro-plus investment by Apple to make Munich the headquarters of its European Silicon Design Center. 

Perhaps tellingly, the Intel CEO, who started in February, met with Bavarian state premier Markus Söder as part of his trip to the country. 

“A lot speaks for Germany,” Gelsinger told Handelsblatt, whose company is due to announce later on Monday an expansion of its business in New Mexico.

Asked for comment from Fortune, Germany’s Federal Economy Ministry declined to comment. The Bavarian state chancellery, too, did not respond to Fortune’s requests for a comment.

Responding to the report, Intel stressed Gelsinger did not mention a specific monetary figure in terms of potential state incentives.

“EU leaders must make the necessary investments to ensure a vibrant semiconductor industry, build resilient supply, and expand innovation for the long term,” the company said in a statement.

A big presence in Europe

Intel already manufactures chips that are 14 nanometers in size at a site in Ireland. That operation has received $15 billion in cumulative investments since 1989, and a further $7 billion is coming on top to bring Intel’s latest generation 7-nm process technology to the region.

To put that into perspective, a human hair is over 10,000-nm wider.

The European Commission wants, however, to build capacity in the smaller scale format of 12 nm to 10 nm. It dreams of eventually assembling transistors that are just 5 nm to 2 nm in length, the most advanced technology currently available. 

Gelsinger met with EU Industries Commissioner Thierry Breton over lunch on Friday to discuss Europe’s plans. 

“Both agreed on the necessity to strengthen EU-U.S. industrial ties, while Europe’s own interests and security of supply will be prioritized,” the Commission said in a statement sent to Fortune. “Europe’s target to reach 20% market share of semiconductors will support a rebalancing of the global supply chain for semiconductors.”

Currently the bloc’s slice of the €440 billion ($530 billion) global semiconductor pie is half of that, according to EU estimates, but the bloc aims to double that by 2030.

Breton is due to hold a videoconference call on Tuesday with Kurt Sievers, CEO of Dutch chipmaker NXP, once the target of a failed Qualcomm bid

Afterward, he will also speak to Peter Wennink, head of ASML Holding, a semiconductor equipment manufacturer that supplies the extreme ultraviolet machines needed to make 2-nm transistors

Whether Intel is the right partner for Europe for such an ambitious project given its recent track record is, however, another matter entirely. 

Electronic devices powered with Intel technology once served as a purchase argument for customers when shopping. The company’s focus on personal computers hobbled its growth in mobile phones, which, in turn, put a premium on compact sizes and lower power usage.

Nowadays it’s the latest Nvidia processor that is the rage, thanks to the use of ARM designs that combine numerous functions on one tiny, energy-efficient chip.

One potential advantage Intel offers could stem from a new division Gelsinger wants to create called Intel Foundry Services, which would compete directly with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC).

As one of the few remaining companies to not just design but also produce semiconductors in-house, a new Intel plant in Europe could also build chips for “fabless” peers that use TSMC’s services. Additionally, it could provide capacity to EU-based companies like NXP, ST Micro, or Infineon looking for a low-capital means of expanding production.

The German chipmaker is set to provide on Tuesday an update to the ramp-up of production at its Austin plant in Texas following February’s weather-related power outages when it publishes fiscal second-quarter results. Independently, it aims to begin chip production at its new Austria plant in Villach by the end of September.

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