BMWs, beer and . . . solar power?

Worker Gerd Gottschalk cleans solar cells at Solar World AG in Saxony's Solar Valley in Freiberg, Germany.

TESS VIGELAND: We get a lot of sunshine here in Los Angeles. Maybe not today, but certainly more often than not. So it's not surprising that California is the world's third-largest market for solar power. Japan comes in second. And the number one market for solar power? Sunny . . . Germany? Yes Germany. And as Kyle James tells us, all that solar power brings a ray of economic sunshine to financially-challenged parts of the European nation.


KYLE JAMES: If Germany has a soundtrack, then it includes the purr of high-performance BMW engines and the sound of good beer from a tap. But too often, the background noise also includes this:
[SOUND: Rain]

Rain bouncing off my umbrella, and lots of it. With heavy clouds and a general daylight level that makes you suspect someone turned down the sky's dimmer switch.

Henner Weithöner is with Solarpraxis, a company that follows Germany's solar sector. He says while solar energy potential in the Sahara is about 2,000 kilowatt hours per square meter per year, Germany's manages a respectable 1,000.

HENNER WEITHÖNER: This shows how much even Germany or parts of northern Europe, how much solar energy we have and what huge potential. We just have to use it.

There are a few reasons why Germany's taken the solar lead. Germans are pretty environmentally conscious. The Green party is strong. And in 2000, lawmakers committed the country to at least doubling the percentage of renewable energy in the overall supply by 2010.

With generous rates for renewable energy providers who feed into the electricity grid, there's a healthy market for solar power. And that market is booming — to the tune of about $5 billion last year.

Its light is shining especially sweetly on the former Communist east.

[SOUND: Construction]

Workmen are busy putting in machines that will manufacture solar modules at new plant being built by the green energy company, Conergy, outside the town of Frankfurt an der Oder.

This is not the Frankfurt of banking and finance. This Frankfurt is on the Polish border and symbolizes the woes of eastern Germany after the Berlin Wall fell.

Inefficient eastern factories closed. Jobs vanished. And the city lost around one-third of its population. So this plant and two other solar firms that want to set up shop here, including an American one, are providing a glimmer of hope.

Andreas von Brandemer is the Conergy plant director.

ANDREWS VON BRANDEMER: We, for example, had a job forum in December. Afterwards we had 5,000 people applying for a job in our factory. The HR people had a lot to do.

Especially since there were only 100 jobs on offer. But those numbers are expected to go up — dramatically.

VON BRANDEMER: I just read an article that in the renewable energies in Germany we will in 2015 employ more people than in the car industry today. That this discussion is starting shows already how important this industry will become.

Eastern Germany is attracting so many solar players that it's been dubbed — well, it was inevitable — Solar Valley. Wages here are lower then in western Germany, the infrastructure is excellent because of massive investment after reunification. And Frankfurt an der Oder was where East Germany's semiconductor industry was based, so there's a skilled workforce.

Andreas Kritski used to work in that industry. He was out of a job for years before starting at Conergy two weeks ago.

ANDREWS KRITSKI (voice of translator): There's new excitement here, you notice it in the population. The recovery that was announced all those years ago is finally coming. Now a lot of people are sending in applications and, like I did, looking on the Internet to find out all they can about solar energy.

But there are still hurdles to be jumped. Price is the big one. Solar power can cost twice what energy from traditional sources does, according to Henner Weithöner of Solarpraxis.

WEITHÖNER: Price reduction is the biggest task within the whole solar industry, that they become competitive even with nuclear energy, with coal-powered plants.

Germany is counting on its technological prowess to improve the technology and cut costs. It hopes to export about half of what it produces to sunny spots like Spain or even California.

In Frankfurt an der Oder, I'm Kyle James for Marketplace.

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