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Man walks past long row of solar modules
Solar modules like these are designed in BerlinImage: AP

Solaropolis Berlin

Leah McDonnell
February 3, 2008

Berlin's Adlershof district is striving to become the place to be when it comes to solar technology. In Europe's largest science park, the experiment to merge science and industry is now taking off.


Located on the eastern outskirts of Berlin, Adlershof is a quick 20-minute train ride from the city center. In GDR times Adlershof was Berlin's celebrated socialist science mecca. So when Germany's reunification threatened its further existence, the area embarked on an experiment: the creation of a science park, merging solar technology research with solar industry, in one winning equation.

Since 1993, Berlin has invested billions of euros in the area -- billions the heavily indebted city doesn't have. But Adlershof's public relations manager, Peter Strunk said it was money well-invested in a bold vision, born of necessity.

"This science park project was created to prevent us from social catastrophe after reunification," Strunk said. "There were so many research facilities located here so instead of closing them down, a decision was made to create an integrated landscape of science and business, to re-establish those industrial structures that had to be dismantled."

A pioneering urban project

The science park is embedded in Adlershof's overall urban planning concept, covering over four square kilometers (1.5 square miles). Its fresh urban landscape is still so new that it looks like a city whose virtual, graphic animation existence has simply been mounted onto the material world.

Adlershof is stream-lined and squeaky clean, with no mom and pop shops, quirky corners, or rough edges to add a bit of charm and irregularity to its neat, urban profile. Its main avenue is strewn with sleek, modern buildings of glass and steel housing scientific institutions and high tech companies.

Off the main strip are freshly-plowed streets named in honor of science icons, like Albert Einstein and Max Born. And there's 66 hectares (163 acres) of land still left undeveloped, waiting to be sold, or rented.

Staying on top

Aerial view of solar power plant in Spain
Spain is a main customer of German solar technologyImage: presse

One research institute with a long tradition in Adlershof is the Hahn-Meitner Institute. Klaus Lips, the scientist leading thin-film solar cell reseach at the institute, was educated in Marburg, Germany, worked in Colorado, but returned to Germany when offered a position here.

Lips said Adlershof is a solar scientist's paradise, due to the close proximity of research and industry, and the unique, open dialogue and collaboration that exists between the two.

"We work together with companies and establish network projects in which researchers, industry, and university students work together," Lips said, pointing out that the synergy of Adlershof's solar community especially benefits the upcoming generation of solar science researchers.

"Our young students have excellent job opportunities here, because upcoming companies are looking for trained people," he added.

Success story

The solar cell company Sulfurcell's founding in 2003 was based on research done on at the Hahn-Meitner Institute. The company started small, but now employs 100 engineers and factory operators to manufacture thin-film, CIS solar cell modules and solar roof tiles.

Sulfurcell's CEO Nikolaus Meyer is a scientist-turned-businessman, involved in the research that led to the company's creation, and stands firmly behind his product.

"CIS stands for copper indium disulfide, a new semi-conductor that allows you to use a very thin, conductor layer on glass to produce electricity," Meyer said.

Sales of Sulfurcell's initial production have been so successful that plans are underway to erect a larger, more automated production plant this year. Meyer said he is confident he'll be able to bring down the price of his product, to compete with the prices of conventionally produced power within the next five years.

Meyer said it would have been impossible to set-up and operate his company anywhere but Adlershof. He said the constant support and input of the area's research institutes are what keep his product state-of-the-art, and thereby competitive.

Slowly getting noticed

A woman takes photos of the solar fields of one of the world's largest solar power stations near Leipzig, Germany
One of the world's largest solar parks sits near Leipzig, GermanyImage: AP

In the former East Germany, the Institute for Silicon Crystal Research enjoyed close ties to the Humboldt University's science faculties nearby, and much of the institute's current staff are Humboldt graduates.

Recently the institute's research growing silicon crystals layers directly onto glass panels caught the attention of the international energy company British Petroleum, which is now financing their further research.

This month, Solon, Germany's largest solar cell company, also moved its extensive operations to Adlershof. A new start-up company named Inventux is beginning operations there, and two major US solar power companies have shown recently interest in investing in the area.

On a roll

Lips said he's convinced that German advances in solar technology will enable the country to supply 25 percent of its electricity needs with solar power alone, within the next two decades.

Meyer from Sulfurcell said he believes clean-tech and renewable energy will be Germany's major industries, in the future.

"We have seen only the beginning of this industry, and that the technology developed in Germany, is creating an excellent foundation for the future success of the industry," he said.

If Adlershof's solar industry continues to grow at its current rate, it has the chance to become the place to be for all significant solar technology players, and Europe's first solaropolis, in the years to come.

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