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Not So Sunny Outcome

Cheryl NortheyJune 25, 2008

While alternative energy campaigners are pleased with a new law making solar panels compulsory for buildings in Marburg, Germany, some residents are talking about "environmental dictatorship".

A roof of a building is covered with solar photovoltaic panels
Marburg has become the German trendsetter in solar solutionsImage: AP

In just a few months, the small college-town of Marburg in Hesse will be the first to make the installation of solar panels obligatory for any newly constructed buildings, as well as existing buildings that are expanded or altered. While environmentalists praise the legislation as a significant step on the road to reducing greenhouse gases, the green bill has some residents and politicians up in arms.

"The local government shouldn't have the right to force the installation of solar panels on people," said Dr. Hermann Uchtmann, a Christian Democrat member of Marburg town council. "It should be voluntary because a lot of Marburg residents were installing solar panels themselves before this bill."

Uchtmann wants to see the decision overturned because he thinks the people themselves should have the right to decide to go green or not. On June 20, a coalition of Greens and Social Democrats voted in favor of the bill, the first of its kind in Germany.

"It doesn't make sense to force this on everyone," Uchtmann said. "There are some young families who just can't afford the installation costs or elderly people who may not see the savings."

Uchtamm says it makes sense economically and environmentally to use solar panels for heating but not necessarily for electricity in some Marburg homes because often residential solar systems don't generate enough electricity for household devices to run.

Ancient houses on the river with the Marburg castle in the background
Marburg is famous for its medieval churches, especially the ElisabethkircheImage: AP

When new law comes into effect on Oct. 1, 2008, solar panels must be installed measuring one square meter (10 square feet) for every 20 square meters of the building’s surface. Those who don't comply with the law will face fines starting at 1,000 euros.

Tough measures for homeowners

Heinz Ludwig, from the Marburg Homeowners Association "Haus and Grund" said he thinks homeowners are being penalized with the green bill, especially when they renovate their homes. He thinks that the costs outlaid for solar thermal systems will stop their members from investing in other climate-conscious measures.

People don't want to install expensive solar paneling for heating, which on average costs 5,000 euros to install. They are more uncertain, after rumors circulated earlier this year that the German government may cut back on subsidies and tax breaks for companies or individuals who install alternative energy equipment.

Solar panels are part of the overall energy solution

"The initial outlay for solar panels for home heating is a barrier for a lot of people", says Gerhard Stryi–Hipp, managing director of the German Solar Industry Association.

"But when you take into consideration that gas and oil prices are on the rise, your investment today should provide you with greater savings in the future."

Stryi-Hipp says that the best energy solution is a combination of solar panels for heating and ensuring greater energy efficiency in the planning and construction of new housing.

A close up of a a grid of solar panels
Solar energy is a cleaner source of energyImage: dpa

There are examples of successful solar conversion in Germany such as the "Sustainable Model District" of Vauban. Vauban is a neighborhood on the site of the former French barracks in Freiburg.

Around 5,000 people live in this area where buildings are built to a low energy consumption standard, many of the houses have solar collectors for heat and parts of the electrical energy are generated by a wood chippings power station or by solar technology.

The Vauban district was set up as a participatory co-operative with ecological and alternative energy solutions where part of the design. But only time will tell if a way of living for 5,000 people can work for the town of 80,000 people in Marburg.