Solar Power: What Obama Can Learn From German Solar Success and Failure

In light of Barack Obama’s huge win and Democratic gains in the Senate, the future of American solar industry looks bright. In a campaign that only included whispers of green industry innovation, Obama’s acceptance speech included a mention of climate change. The American media is also suddenly comfortable to acknowledge climate change thanks to Hurricane Sandy. It seems that the national media cannot ignore a storm of this caliber flooding their own backyard.

So where does the U.S. look to for an example of a successful solar industry? China has been very successful at flooding the solar panel market with the help of illegal subsidization practices, and, of course, cheap labor. This is not a viable option here, and China's success has made it very difficult for American and German clean tech companies to get off the ground.

In a cold and cloudy country thousands of miles from the equator, Germany has launched the most successful solar panel industry in the West. With the help of years of subsidization, Germany has astonishingly become the world leader in solar energy production.

Berlin took the training wheels off earlier this year. Though results have been mixed and spun by conflicting interests, the panel industry is alive and well, and production is extremely high.

On May 25, Germany got one-third of all of its electricity from solar, for that day. While this was monumental, it was only the beginning of the good news. In the first nine months of 2012, solar power production is up 50% over the same period last year.

Astonishingly, the Germans are ambivalent over whether or not to phase out their “Feed-In Tariff” policy, wherein private citizens can actually make money with their solar power production by feeding it back into the power grid. This appears to be in response to the efforts of the great career contrarian Bjorn Lomborg.

Thanks to the German naysayers and Chinese market dominance, a wave of consolidation is sweeping across Germany’s “solar valley” in Bitterfeld. The solar panel industry is suffering. But a new manufacturing method, referred to as “oven technology,” is set to level the playing field by using fewer raw material.


 

The German solar industry is a model for those of us in sunnier climes. If they can have success in producing new records for solar power production every year, just imagine what we can do in the southern U.S. If the federal government follows California’s lead in funding innovation and subsidizing the still fledgling industry, we could abandon the damaging practices of fossil fuel extraction plaguing the countryside. Instead of swapping one polluting industry (coal mining) for another (gas fracking) we could harness sustainable energy. We could simply take the $46 billion in fossil fuel subsidies that President Obama is promising to get rid of and put them into this domestic industry.

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Joseph Doolen

A science policy writer with professional experience writing in Washington, San Francisco and Madison, Joseph holds an MS in Biology, an MA in Journalism and is pursuing a PhD. For media organizations, he has covered San Francisco Bay Area environmental news, D.C. politics and Wisconsin state news. This year he is writing for Yale, the Obama campaign and covering AAAS in Vancouver. Joseph has done environmental work and science research in Texas and at the flagship universities of Illinois, Wisconsin and Cal-Berkeley.

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