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The Sun Shines Less on Solar Power in Germany

Daan Bauwens

BERLIN, Mar 12 2012 (IPS) - Germany is capable of producing as much solar energy as the rest of the world together. But now the German government is proposing dramatic cuts in subsidies for solar panels. They say consumer demand is so high it can no longer support the technology.

A protester in Berlin demands restoration of subsidies for solar energy. Credit: Daan Bauwens/IPS.

A protester in Berlin demands restoration of subsidies for solar energy. Credit: Daan Bauwens/IPS.

Germany has a production capacity of more than 25,000 megawatts. In December 2011 alone, a record 7,500 megawatts capacity was added to the German solar park. That is the equivalent of five average nuclear power plants. On sunny days, solar power can provide up to 25 percent of the country’s energy.

The success of solar power in Germany is led by a generous subsidy policy to promote renewables, especially photovoltaic cells. In the German subsidy system, utility companies are obliged to pay people who generate their own solar power, for instance with photovoltaic cells on the roofs of their houses.

Germany has also seen cooperatives renting space on the roofs of public buildings for the placement of solar panels. Over the years, the German energy capacity output has more than doubled the government’s projected target.

But at the end of last month, German Environment Minister Norbert Roettgen and Economy Minister Phillip Roesler proposed a plan to cut subsidies for solar power by almost 30 percent. The decision follows similar subsidy cuts in the UK, Italy and France last year. In Germany subsidies had already been cut 50 percent over the last three years.

To avoid a last-minute boom, ministers Roettgen and Roesler proposed on Feb. 23 that the cuts would be implemented on Mar. 9, giving the industry no more than two weeks to prepare for the change. This proposal sparked anger in the solar industry and amongst environmentalists, resulting in protests at Berlin’s Brandenburger Gate.

“This decision will kill the market for solar energy,” says Stefan Hief, CEO of Cosmoenergy, manufacturer of photovoltaic cells. “If there have to be cuts, they should not be as drastic as the government is proposing. This way, we are going to lose thousands of jobs in the sector, at a time when we are the world leaders in solar power production and the German public is in favour of renewables. For us, this decision comes down to nothing but a total solar phase-out,” he tells IPS.

In an open letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel, the German solar industry association BSW-Solar stated that the proposed cuts would “undermine Germany’s position as an international textbook example for solar power.” As a result of the German goverment’s recent declarations, employees at the American solar panel manufacturer First Solar in Brandenburg have now been obliged to start working halftime.

It is not clear why the German government wants to cut the subsidies. According to some sources, the cuts are intended to channel more money into other renewables such as wind energy. But the main reason could be that, because of the success of solar power, the costs are getting too high for the German government. The December addition of 7,500 megawatts of solar panels led to a subsidy of more than 8 billion euros.

Power companies, obliged to pay people who generate their own solar power, pass the extra costs on to the consumers in their electricity bill. The goverment says it has to decrease the financial burden on consumers by lessening the subsidies.

But according to Dr. Cornelia Ziehm at the Deutsche Umwelthilfe (German Environmental Aid) in Berlin, the reasons are mostly political. “It is true there is a problem,” she admits to IPS, “the amount of money being put into the solar industry is high. But more than this, in this time of crisis the German minister of economy Roesler was in need of a new theme to tackle. He discovered the subsidies for solar energy were quite high so he proposed to cut them as a means to reduce costs for the German citizens.

“This idea was not warmly welcomed by the Ministry of Environment,” Cornelia Ziehm says. “But since last summer’s decision to completely phase out nuclear energy by 2020 after the Fukushima disaster, environment minister Roettgen has been under a lot of pressure by several people in his party, the CDU (Christian Democratic Union). Some CDU politicians are in favour of nuclear energy and still don’t agree with the phase-out, but voted for it under pressure of CDU President Angela Merkel. This decision can be seen as a contra-revolution within the CDU.”

Following protests at Brandenburger Gate Monday last week, an official spokesperson declared the subsidy cuts will not come into force before Apr. 1.

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