Tucked away behind trees in the middle of the countryside, the Leipziger Land solar power plant Wednesday in the eastern German village of Espenhain is invisible from the road. It’s only when you drive through the gate and onto the site itself that you’re confronted with a vast field full of 33,500 shimmering gray panels tilted towards the sun at precisely 30 degrees -- the optimum angle for absorbing radiation.
The Espenhain site, near Leipzig, was a deposit for lignite dust -- a type of brown coal -- and was thus contaminated and couldn’t be used for anything else. The lignite had to first be buried under 30 cm (12 inches) of earth on the 20-hectare (49-acre) plot, before the three-and-a-half meter high sloping frames which support the panels could be set up.
The high performance modules, made of monocrystalline silicon, can handle the high voltage as well as delivering a high energy yield. Each panel produces 150 watts of energy. The plant cost €22 million ($26.5 million) to build and is capable of generating five megawatts of electricity.
Germany’s pioneering Renewable Energy Law, which was passed four years ago and amended in April this year, decrees that any electricity producer -- including private individuals -- get paid for the amount they feed into the national grid. This has encouraged thousands of people to install solar panels on their houses.
It would be impossible to realize a project on the scale of the new plant without that kind of guarantee, according to Annett Fruehling, a project engineer for Berlin-based firm Geosol, which was responsible for the plant's planning and development. Shell Solar and Siemens provided the equipment and technology.
"We get a certain amount, a fixed price for the electricity we produce here, and this price is fixed for the next 20 years. No bank would give you the money for a plant like this without any security on the other side," Fruehling told DW-RADIO. "We can meet the electricity demand of 1,800 households, and, on the other hand, we save about 3,700 tons annually in (carbon dioxide emissions)."
"Ideal for developing world"
Geosol is planning another solar plant in Borna, not far from Espenhain, Fruehling said. But the technology shouldn't be limited to the developed world, Ronald Uppmann, press officer of the German solar industry association Solar e.V., said. Due to the ease and speed with which solar modules can be installed, this type of clean energy is ideal for use in developing countries, Uppmann said.
"In wind energy and in photovoltaics and in solar thermal technologies Germany is one of the leading nations in the world, Uppmann said. "It is very easy and very useful to export the technology. So if you think of families that live in the jungle of Brazil, they are not supplied with electricity at all, (but now) they have the possibility to put a little solar power plant on the rooftop and so they get the possibility to use light, they get the possibility to warm their water."
In the six years that Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s coalition of Social Democrats and environmentally-friendly Greens has been in office, the amount of electricity generated in Germany by renewable energy sources -- as opposed to fossil and nuclear fuel -- has more than doubled, from 4 to 9 percent. By supporting projects such as the Leipziger Land solar power plant, the government aims to increase this share still further -- to 20 percent in 2020, and 50 percent by 2050.