The small town of Bischofswerda in the eastern German state of Saxony it profiting from the current solar industry boom: A Canadian producer is about to open a plant for solar cells.
Arise's Sjouke Zijlstra (right)thinks others will follow his lead
Surrounded by lush green hills, Bischofswerda's industrial park sits near the German-Czech border. A gray box site atop one of the hills. Workers from the Netherlands, Germany and Italy have worked for the past six months to complete it. In summer, Canadian firm ARISE Technologies will move in and begin to produce 1,500 solar cells per hour.
Some level of improvisation's still needed. People are working on the roof of the giant aluminum hall while diggers are working on the ground outside. But standing between construction containers, Sjouke Zijlstra, the plant's Dutch manager, is convinced that his company's a beacon of hope for the town's 13,000 residents.
"We'll soon be the biggest shop in town," he said.
The plant can still do with a touch of color
To start with, the company needs 130 new employees, including 10 engineers. It's no wonder that the Canadians received a warm welcome, considering that the town has an unemployment rate of 16 percent.
But Zijlstra dampens too much enthusiasm by saying that the need for employees will remain limited.
"We have a highly automated production process," the 62-year-old said.
Some time will pass before regional suppliers profit from the solar cell plant and even then, mainly caterers, cleaning firms and craftsmen will find work there.
The first production line has already arrived and three more are expected to follow. The lines will take up the entire length of the hall. They're fed gray, thing silicon plates that get turned into sparkling blue solar cells in the end.
The plates are cleaned and treated with chemicals in many steps that cost a lot of energy. The plant will only cover a small portion of this with renewable energy from its own facilities on the roof.
"The amount of energy that we need is so large that we cannot get it from just one facility," Zijlstra said while moving to the end of the line, where the quality of the solar cells is checked with light flashes that surround the blue discs.
Sweetening the deal
Waiting for the first products
The company didn't show up in Bischofswerda out of the blue, though: German and EU subsidies did play an important role.
Zijlstra said that the company gets subsidies of 50 percent -- that's 20 to 25 percent more than in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
"That's a significant amount of money when you're investing 50 million euros ($77.9 million)," he said.
Bischofswerda's mayor, Andreas Erler, wooed investors for seven years before he managed to get them on board. Erler said he believes that his town's proximity to leading solar research centers such as the one at Dresden's Technical University, were an important selling point for ARISE.
The Canadian investors, meanwhile, are optimistic as far as Bischofswerda and the future development of solar cells is concerned. If everything goes according to plan, nine more production halls will be built in the future -- and hopefully attract other companies as well.
"When one firm gets started, others will follow," Zijlstra said.
He might be right: Two more companies interested in processing solar cells recently dropped by Bischofswerda.