Berlin Aims to Become Solar Powerhouse
Author: Erik Kirschbaum
"You don't necessarily have to have the best natural geographic conditions to be a solar power capital," Harald Wolf told Reuters in an interview, referring to the German capital's 52-degree north latitude and its cloud cover for about two-thirds of daylight hours.
"What's important is having the best possible network made up of a scientific community and private companies," he said. "We've got a lot of important firms, six top universities and a lot of research institutes. It all comes together nicely.
"We want to be the solar capital of Germany," he added.
Wolf said Berlin which lost much of its industrial base during its Cold War division, has wholeheartedly embraced the solar industry.
It has put more focus into the sector and research into photovoltaics -- the process of converting sunlight into energy -- than any German region.
"We've been focussing on it for quite some time and with worldwide concerns about climate change there's huge growth potential, both in Germany and abroad. We want to be a heavyweight in the field."
With the German solar market showing annual growth rates of more than 25 percent the sector has a special appeal to the city where many industries are stagnating. He predicted ten-fold growth over the next decade, due in part to its programme of enticements for investors and researchers.
Such enthusiasm could reassure investors in a country which in May accelerated a reduction in statutory solar supports.
Germany's renewables energy act (EEG) nevertheless remains the motor driving the sector. It has been copied in dozens of countries and guarantees investors fixed feed-in tariffs for solar power which utilities are obligated to buy at high prices.
The EEG has helped make Germany the world's largest producer of solar power -- about half of the entire world's solar power is produced here -- and photovoltaic technology. Berlin now has 10,000 jobs in the sector, up from barely anything a decade ago and Wolf believes that will grow ten-fold again by 2018.
"Berlin lost its traditional industries due to its division and they didn't simply return after the Berlin Wall fell," Wolf said. "We're only going to get ahead with new industries such as photovoltaic and in areas where we're highly innovative.
Germany installed 2,700 megawatts of solar power in 2007, enough for about 1 million homes, nearly double the 2006 amount. Some 14 percent of the country's electricity came from renewable sources. By 2020 Germany wants that figure to be 30 percent.
Researchers at Berlin's Hahn-Meitner Institute, joined by local firms Solon AG and Sulfercell, are developing thin film technologies to cut costs and make it possible to put lightweight panels on more structures like city hall, Wolf said.
"As technology improves and efficiency increases, it'll be increasingly cost-effective even if there is a limited number of hours of sunshine and we're so far north," he said, noting high- tech breakthroughs to lower costs could offset reductions in state support in countries such as Spain.
Wolf said Berlin wants to put solar panels on more roofs.
"We've created a bourse to allow private investors to rent school roofs and public buildings for photovoltaic use," he said. "We've turned 24 schools into mini power plants."
He said the city parliament is expected to pass legislation by next year that would require anyone building or renovating a building to incorporate a certain percentage of CO2-free technology for energy -- a step to further stimulate demand.
(editing by Gerard Wynn and Matthew Jones)