Photovoltaic energy shines bright in Munich
by Amanda Gronau
Nov 14, 2007
It's cold. It's wet. There's snow on the ground and in the air and the sky is pewter grey. The sun is 93 million miles away and frankly, you can feel every single mile. That is, until you walk into the massive Hall B5, where the atmosphere is buzzing with the potential of solar energy.
Photovoltaics (PV), the conversion of solar light into usable energy, is a fast growing sector, and amazingly enough, it's a huge industry in Germany.
This has its roots in the late 1990s, with an environmentally-sensitive government campaign to put solar panels onto the German population's roofs. By the regulations of the "10,000 roof" program, those who chose to install solar panels received government credits to set against the installation costs. The campaign was so successful that it was fast followed by the "100,000 roof" programme, but it wasn't until 2000 that things really took off.
Wanting to move faster, the government changed the funding scheme in that year, making roof-installed solar panels a real financial deal for Germany's homeowners. Under this scheme, the homeowner would finance the initial purchase and installation of the solar panels, but would then route his home-generated electricity into the national grid, receiving, from his electricity supplier, a "Feed-in Tariff" which was anywhere between 40 and 60 eurocents per Kilowatt hour of electricity thus produced.
Given that the same homeowner would typically pay a third of that for every Kilowatt hour actually used, it is not hard to believe that the government achieved the growth in solar panel installation and use that it aimed for. The financing scheme, which is still active today, guarantees the homeowner the same level of payment for 20 years after the installation, which pretty well covers the 25-year guarantee that solar panel manufacturers must offer their clients, as well as amply covering the panel's energy payback period, which can be anywhere from 3 to 7 years.
The result is that today, at 50% of a global market worth anywhere between 5 and 9 billion euros, and growing at around 25%, Germany leads the world's move to solar panels. Great for the environment and great for homeowners.
It is also great for industry, so, unsurprisingly, Germany has a burgeoning PV manufacturing industry - second only to Japan, and it is also the second supplier of machinery dedicated to PV cell manufacture. The sector is so important that the German Engineering Federation (VDMA) has launched a brand new Photovoltaic Equipment Forum, headed by Dr Eric Maiser, that brings together manufacturers of equipment for the Electronics, Glass, Energy, Organic Electronics, Robotics, Robotics and Automation, Laser and Photonics and Surface Treatment sectors. And here, for the electronics industry at least, lies a further impressive advantage: much of the expertise and know-how gathered over the past decades in the manufacture of flat screen displays, PCBs and semiconductors is ideal - with very few tweaks - for PV cell manufacture.
So equipment manufacturers who have seen their markets slowly dwindle in recent years are putting their hard work to excellent use in an industry that is growing, will earn them money, and has a great feel-good factor attached. Many countries, perhaps better placed to harness all that free solar energy, would do very well to follow their example.