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After wind power, Germany turns to the sun for electricity
BERLIN (AFP) Sep 12, 2004
Germany has launched a renewable energy offensive, first into wind and now solar power but the limits of this policy, introduced as the nuclear industry is phased out, have been exposed by the rise in oil prices.

Solar power has recently come on-line in a big way here with the construction of several giant generators, the latest opened over the last week in the eastern city of Leipzig.

Some 33,500 photovoltaic panels will be able to generate up to five megawatt hours of electricity, enough to meet the needs of 1,800 households and the manufacturer claims it is the biggest plant of its kind ever built.

But in terms of superlatives, the competition in this industry is tough.

In the western state of Hesse, another five megawatt plant is due to be completed this year. It will have the largest surface area of solar panels on its roof in the world -- the equivalent of eight soccer pitches.

An 8.2 megawatt plant is running at around 50 percent in the southwest state of Saarland, and a 10 megawatt plant is in the pipeline in Bavaria, further east.

The German UVS solar energy association estimates that the country's solar energy generating capacity will double to 300 megawatts this year, bringing in earnings of more than a billion euros and creating 5,000 jobs.

In this way, Germany hopes to overtake Japan as the world's major user.

Nevertheless energy derived from the sun makes up a small percentage of the total electricity switched on to the power grids in Germany, where homeowners can subscribe to the kind of electricity of their choice.

The giant plant in Leipzig, for example, generates only slightly more electricity than the country's biggest wind farm, at 4.5 megawatts.

A large nuclear reactor generates some 1,600 megawatts but Germany has decided to close all such plants by 2020, and by that time 20 percent of its electricity should come from renewable sources, from 10 percent currently.

However the government, made up of Social Democrats and Greens, wants to reduce the production of so-called greenhouse gases responsible for global warming, which would appear to rule out any reliance on coal-fired plants.

As oil prices have risen recently to record levels, Berlin has also been keen to distance itself from any dependence on this fossil fuel, further limiting its options.

"It is reasonable to want to support renewable energy forms ... but it is an illusion to belive that they can replace, not only nuclear power, but also oil," Gerhard Gott, Germany's representative on the World Energy Council, said recently.

Even the country's prominent use of wind power has been criticised by energy groups, which recommend natural gas as the most efficient and cleanest form of energy, as being too expensive.

"What's important to understand is what technique provides the biggest reduction in carbon dioxide gas emissions for the financial investment, and solar energy can be an expensive option," said Harry Roels, head of the German energy giant RWE.

Roels said he expects more gas plants to be produced in the future.

A problem now though is that 80 percent of the natural gas used in Germany is imported at high prices and with long delays compared to oil.

As global demand for black gold continues to rise, Berlin risks paying a high price for its decision to abandon nuclear energy.

But many Germans are ready to pay it, according to opinion polls.

Fifty-eight percent of people questioned by the latest edition of the Wirtschaftswoche business weekly said they would refuse to go back to nuclear energy even to help reduce the cost of electricity.

All rights reserved. 2005 Agence France-Presse. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by Agence France-Presse. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of Agence France-Presse.