Solar Valley (Image courtesy of Salon AG)T
he gritty industrial town of Bitterfeld, Germany, is about an hour southwest of Berlin by train, but until very recently it was the ruined epicentre of another civilization entirely. As the hub of the Eastern bloc’s chemical industry, it was once declared the dirtiest town in Europe, serving as the inspiration for a sort of German curse — in loose translation, “If we don’t meet in this world, I’ll find you in Bitterfeld.” By 2001, the town was at the black bottom of ten years with one of the highest unemployment rates in Saxony-Anhalt, the state that in turn suffered from the highest unemployment rate in all of Germany.
That same year, a handful of solar entrepreneurs set up shop in a local industrial park. Today their little start-up is Q-Cells, the world’s largest manufacturer of photovoltaic cells. It presides over a burgeoning industrial hub christened Solar Valley by its ecstatic boosters. Unemployment here has plummeted from its 25 percent–plus peak in the 1990s down into the mid-teens. The economic development director of the regional municipality of Bitterfeld-Wolfen (which includes a number of other blue-collar burgs), a shy young gent named Christian Puschmann, told me he’s constantly updating the employment figures on his agency’s website to keep up with the delirious pace of expansion.
Puschmann was keen to show me the exuberant reality of Solar Valley, so we met one typically grey Saxon afternoon at Q-Cells’ headquarters and set off on a tour of booming Bitterfeld-Wolfen. He trolled slowly down winding industrial park avenues and rail yard access roads, pointing out the sights from behind the wheel of his modest, aging subcompact with palpable pride. Here were the vast warehouses containing Q-Cells’ production lines, its next-generation spinoffs, and its competitors’ goods. Around the bend were a Swiss supplier of PV components and a maker of solar panel glass. We skirted Thalheim, the once-sleepy town closest to the Q-Cells complex. “This small village had so much money they didn’t know what to do with it,” said Puschmann in his gentle, halting English. “They built a new stadium; they made streets and lamps and whatever.”
We passed through a broad expanse of detritus left behind by the chemical industry of the former GDR. Puschmann pointed out the small deliverers — businesses of fifteen or twenty employees that serve the solar industry. Then we came to a larger facility. “This is the wafer production for the solar cells. It’s only a hundred million investment,” he told me, his voice drenched in good-natured sarcasm. “One of the smaller ones.” Q-Cells alone had invested half a billion euros in the region over the previous two years.
Finally, he dropped me at the Bitterfeld train station with a reluctant auf Wiedersehen
. He’d wanted to squeeze in a visit to the new lake they’d made by pumping water into an old open-pit brown-coal mine near the market square. Stylish homes were going up around it, in hopes that high-tech workers would forsake their commutes from Leipzig and Berlin. Things were happening in Bitterfeld. In Bitterfeld
! This was what he wanted me to know.
Curiously, not once did Puschmann mention climate change. The defining issue of our time may have provided the impetus for Bitterfeld’s renaissance, but it was by now an incidental detail. There was too much else happening here — and up and down the length of Solar Valley, and all over Germany — to dwell on such gloomy topics. This is one of the upsides of acting boldly: you wind up too busy to wring your hands.
n much of the world, the official response to climate change from government and business leaders has been decidedly underwhelming. Few seriously dispute the assessment of Scientific American
that stopping climate change represents “the most imposing scientific and technical challenge that humanity has ever faced,” but the reaction, particularly in Canada, has been a series of half shuffles, tentative and provisional and multiply compromised. We throw a little R&D money around and implement voluntary efficiency programs and pilot projects, but we are deathly afraid of big steps. Germany, meanwhile, has taken one giant step, skipping past the frustration and acrimony of a hundred incidental ones. To the surprise of a great many North American skeptics, the country has given birth to one of the world’s most verdant green industrial heartlands.
The engine of this radical transformation is the single most effective climate policy measure yet devised: a straightforward law called a feed-in tariff that obliges power distributors to purchase electricity from renewable sources for a fixed time, at fixed rates above market prices. The German fit
(the Renewable Energy Sources Act, by name) sets the price for green power far higher than market rates — as much as seven times higher in the case of solar energy.
Although Germany is not particularly windy and is kissed each year by about the same amount of sunlight as southern Alaska, it is now a global leader in the generation of energy from sun and wind, and in the production of solar panels and wind turbines. Its renewable energy industry employs about a quarter of a million people, and brought in almost $40 billion in revenue in 2007, up 10 percent from 2006 and nearly four times the figure for 2000. Seemingly every green power company on the planet has set up at least part of its shop there in recent years, including Arise Technologies, a solar company headquartered in southwestern Ontario, which announced in September 2007 that it would establish its first industrial-scale production facility in eastern Germany.
To most North American economists and policy wonks, the German fit
reeks of any number of heresies, whether price fixing or central planning or some other acridly socialistic term deemed synonymous with eco-nomic suicide. But the frenetic activity at eastern German economic development offices is a direct result of the fit
’s unorthodox pricing scheme, and one European nation after another has chosen to follow the German lead. The fit
— an easily copied piece of legislation, unencumbered by the elaborate rules and fine calibrations of cap-and-trade regimes — has now spread to France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, and Spain.