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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Solar Valley grows under cloudy German skies

RENEW Wisconsin supports and the Governor's Global Warming Task Force has before it the concept of fixed above-market prices (called feed-in tariffs) for electricity produced from renewable resources, as described in an article by Mark Landler in The New York Times:
THALHEIM, Germany — This sad stretch of eastern Germany, with its deserted coal mines and corroded factories, epitomizes post-industrial gloom. It is a place where even the clouds rarely seem to part.

Yet the sun was shining here the other day — and nowhere more brightly than at Q-Cells, a German company that surpassed Sharp last year to become the world’s largest maker of photovoltaic solar cells. Q-Cells is the main tenant among a flowering cluster of solar start-ups here in an area known as Solar Valley.

Thanks to its aggressive push into renewable energies, cloud-wreathed Germany has become an unlikely leader in the race to harness the sun’s energy. It has by far the largest market for photovoltaic systems, which convert sunlight into electricity, with roughly half of the world’s total installations. And it is the third-largest producer of solar cells and modules, after China and Japan. . . .

At the heart of the debate is the Renewable Energy Sources Act. It requires power companies to buy all the alternative energy produced by these systems, at a fixed above-market price, for 20 years.

This mechanism, known as a feed-in tariff, gives entrepreneurs a powerful incentive to install solar panels. With a locked-in customer base for their electricity, they can earn a reliable return on their investment. It has worked: homeowners rushed to clamp solar panels on their roofs and farmers planted them in fields where sheep once grazed.

The amount of electricity generated by these installations rose 60 percent in 2007 compared with 2006, faster than any other renewable energy (solar still generates just 0.6 percent of Germany’s total electricity, compared with 6.4 percent for wind). . . .

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