A German City's Long Focus on the Sun

Published on
the Associated Press

A German City's Long Focus on the Sun

Paul Burkhardt

FREIBURG, Germany -- Rolf Disch has harnessed the sun in his city of Freiburg, starting with his own house.

It looks like an upside-down Apollo spacecraft and serves as a testing ground for ideas dreamed up by the 63-year-old solar architect.

0719 10The home slowly turns with the sun to charge a billboard-sized solar panel on the roof, and the waterless toilet emits an occasional malodorous whiff. Hanna Lehmann, Disch's wife, says she doesn't mind these features but admits she'd like to have a freezer, except that it would eat up too much electricity for her husband's liking.

"I miss my Campari on ice," she said.

Disch and his city are pioneers in energy-saving, and a growing number of eco-tourists flock here to admire his house, known as the Heliotrope, from the Greek words for "sun" and "turn." Across the city, solar panels are on everything from the soccer stadium to entire neighborhoods with homes that produce more energy than they use.

"Energy was too cheap for people to take it seriously, but with the rise in energy costs and the IPCC report people see that they have to look for other solutions now," Disch said, referring to the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which documented scientific evidence for global warming.

With its focus on solar energy, Freiburg demonstrates the progress that can be made by promoting, developing and using renewable energy. But the city of more than 200,000 in the sunny southwestern corner of the country also is an example of how far technology in the solar sector has to go _ it produces less than 1 percent of its electricity from the sun.

Residents boast that Freiburg's solar power roots go back to a protest in 1975 against plans for a nuclear plant.

"They didn't want nuclear power in their backyards and fields," said Thomas Dresel of the city's Environmental Protection Agency.

The protest also drew experts who helped develop alternative energy solutions, Dresel said. The region now has more than 900 solar installations and is home to leading research institutions and companies working to make renewable energy more practical.

0719 08In 1981, the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems was founded in Freiburg, and a number of similar facilities followed. Fraunhofer now employs some 500 people and is Europe's largest solar energy research institute.

Germany as a whole has followed Freiburg's lead in trying to save energy, encouraged by the environmentally friendly Green Party that was in former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's governing coalition. In 2000, Germany decided to phase out nuclear plants by 2020, and it has adopted legislation promoting the development and use of renewable energy sources.

Renewables made up more than 5 percent of Germany's total primary energy supply in 2006, according the Environment Ministry. The government's goal is to increase the share of electric power from renewables to 12.5 percent by 2010 and 20 percent by 2020.

Wind energy remains the country's leading renewable source of electricity, but solar power use has increased to about 750 megawatts installed in 2006, up from 83 megawatts in 2002, according to the German Solar Industry Association.

The solar industry is now becoming a $6 billion a year business that builds more than 50 percent of the world's installed solar panels. About 43,000 people work in the industry, according to the association.

The federal government has spent more than $1.75 billion on photovoltaic research since the late 1990s.

"Germany is technologically leading in solar technology, most solar plants are installed here and, what is even more important, are produced here," said Carsten Koernig, head of the German Solar Industry Association. "And this is the decisive factor, because other countries will follow and then we want to supply these huge growth markets with solar technology 'made in Germany.'"

In Freiburg, the city government started encouraging saving power in 1986 in "direct reaction" to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of that year, and city and scientists have worked well together, said Karin Schneider, the Fraunhofer Institute's spokeswoman.

More than half the year is sunny here, "but it doesn't really matter if we're here or in the rest of Europe," said the environmental agency's Dresel.

Although most Freiburgers still live under traditional tile roof homes, homes built in the city's renovated Vauban district must follow low-energy standards. These include triple-thick glass windows and walls of compressed natural materials _ that help create all the energy they will need. These cost around 15 percent more than a conventional house, according to Disch.

These "passive" houses lie in a zone with strict limits on car traffic. Some cynics poke fun at the spectacle of solar panels mounted on a parking garage, but Freiburgers generally have embraced the culture of renewable energy sources.

Disch's architectural firm is in the Solar Ship, a mixed residential and commercial building with "Plus energy" apartments he designed. The apartments, atop the ship, have solar panels that generate four times the energy they consume.

The headquarters building of solar panel maker Solar-Fabrik features a photovoltaic facade and a generator run on vegetable oil that meets all the building's energy needs.

The power company Badenova says about 10 percent of its customers now opt for paying more to have renewable energy.

Another initiative combines solar technology and sport. The city's soccer team showers after games with water heated by solar panels on the stadium roof. The team gave season tickets to investors in the project.

Other panels on the stadium earn money by feeding electricity into the power grid and were financed by a partnership of local team SC Freiburg and Badenova, which offered public shares in the project.

For all Freiburg's efforts to use renewable energy, Dresel acknowledges that the sun generates just 0.74 percent of his city's electricity supply.

"For the time being it's still very small, but the qualitative aspect is very strong," Dresel said. "This creates momentum for the future."

Renewable energy in the Freiburg region makes up almost 4 percent of energy production. The city has set a target of 10 percent of renewable usage by 2010. Freiburg already has set some low energy requirements for home buyers.

It helped that Germany's Renewable Energy Sources Act, passed in 2000, set a healthy price to be paid for renewable energy fed into the electricity grid, and that figure was revised upward in 2004.

But even in a city pioneering renewable energy, Disch complains that he has to be as creative in getting money for his projects as he is in designing them.

"It's getting less difficult," he said, "but it's still hard."

© 2007 The Associated Press

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