Officials flicked on the switch at two of Germany's most important new solar energy sites on Thursday. In the eastern state of Brandenburg, the world's second-largest solar energy project went online. And halfway across the country, in North Rhine-Westphalia, a smaller scale but perhaps equally important facility launched -- Germany's first solar-thermal power plant.
In Brandenburg, Wolfgang Tiefensee, Germany's infrastructure and transport minister, and the state governer, Matthias Platzeck, assisted with laying the very last of 560,000 solar modules at Lieberose, formerly a military training ground for East German forces.
"This solar park is an important factor as solar energy becomes an ever more important part of Brandenburg's economy," Platzeck says. "I see Lieberose as a shining example of this. An under-used and polluted military area has been cleaned up without draining local financial resources. The solar park also meets economic and environmental needs on a long-term basis. After the solar park has used the land, the area will be given back to nature."
By the time it goes completely online at the end of 2009, there will be 700,000 solar modules and the project, which will be Germany's biggest, will have an estimated output of 53 megawatts. That, says the Juwi Group, which is operating the facility and also runs Germany's second-largest solar power plant near Leipzig, will be enough to power 15,000 households. It's still a modest amount of energy, though, considering that the average coal-fired power plant has an output of 700 megawatts.
Building started at the end of 2008 after left-over munitions were cleared from the area. The last military exercises were carried out there in 1992 and the land was given over to the state in 1994. The new solar park now covers an area approximately the size of 210 football fields. The plant cost investors €160 million and the photovoltaic generators used to create the park's power are the latest of their kind: thin layer modules manufactured by First Solar in Frankfurt an der Oder, a German city located near the Polish border.
Environmentalists: "Nobody Knows What Will Happen"
The park stands mainly on moor and lake land which has been leased from the state for the next 20 years. And the Juwi Group has said that when the time comes, they will disassemble the solar plant at the company's own cost and have the materials recycled.
Still, this has not satisfied some German conservation groups who point out that the solar park takes up a lot of space and express their worries about loss of local wildlife. While they are happy about more alternative energies coming on tap, groups like Germany's Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) note that nobody really knows what will happen in an area where such a large solar power plant is active. Wolfgang Mädlow of the group's state chapter in Brandenburg warned that the massive loss of land at Lieberose could be dangerous for birds. "We are particularly concerned about the displacement effect it could have on birds," he said, adding that waterfowl could also mistake the shiny surfaces of the photovoltaic modules for water. The group says it would prefer to see the modules erected separately on rooftops, closer to the end users, rather than bunched together on a mass site in what was once wilderness.
Germany's First Solar Thermal Project Switches On
Of course the politicians don't see it this way. In a statement released when the new solar park was announced, Platzeck said that, "projects like this help us to heal the wounds of the Cold War and, at the same time, to achieve our ambitious targets in terms of renewable energy for the long term." In February, the German government announced an "energy roadmap" in which one of the major goals is having renewable energy provide 20 percent of the country's total power by the end of the next decade.
Meanwhile in Jülich, near Cologne in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, a €33 million demonstration solar-thermal "power tower" went online. Built by several partners, including the German Aerospace Center, the Jülich municipal authority and the FH Aachen University of Applied Sciences, the power tower is capable of generating 1.5 megawatts of power, enough to cover the electricity needs of about 2,000 people.
In April of this year, Spain switched on the first commercial solar-thermal power plant in the world and it is hoped that the Jülich prototype will eventually be replicated and become part of Germany's ambitious Desertec power project, to be based in Africa and the Middle East.
The German Environmental Aid Association (DUH) lobby group hailed the launch of the solar projects as well as Gerrmany's first off-shore wind park, which joined the grid last week.
"A young industry, that employs 280,000 people today and that could employ half a million people within the next decade, can no longer be called a niche," enthused Cornelia Ziehm, who heads the organization's climate protection and alternative energy group. "It is well on the way to becoming a key industry for Germany."
Ziehm also addressed the recent downturn in the German solar energy industry, which has seen a number of companies post losses. Given economic circumstances, she said, it shouldn't be a "big surprise." Overall, the industry has enjoyed double-digit growth worldwide over the past few years, she noted.