National Geographic : 2009 Sep
• farmhouses, even on soccer stadiums and along the autobahn. ough dispersed across the countryside, they are connected to the national grid, and utility companies are required to pay even the smallest producers a premium of about 50 euro cents a kilowatt-hour. "We are being paid for living in this house," said Wolfgang Schnürer, a resident of Solarsiedlung---"solar settlement"---a con- dominium complex in Freiburg. Outside, snow was sliding o the solar panels that covered the roofs of the development. e day before, Schnürer s system had produced only 5.8 kilowatt-hours, not enough even for a German household. But on a sunny day in May it had yielded more than seven times that much. A er serving co ee and Christmas cookies, Schnürer spread some printouts on the table. In 2008 his personal power plant gen- erated 6,187 kilowatt-hours, more than double what the Schnürers consumed. When the amount they used was subtracted from the amount they produced, they came out more than 2,500 euros (nearly $3,700) ahead. Sitting at the edge of the Black Forest in the southern part of the country, "sunny Freiburg," as the tourist brochures call it, has been transformed by the solar boom. Across the street from Solarsied- lung, a parking garage and a school are covered with photovoltaic panels. In the older part of town, towering walls of photovolta- ics greet visitors at the train station. Nearby, at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, the next generation of technol- ogy is being developed. In one project, Fresnel lenses are used to concentrate sunlight 500 times, raising the e ciency of a standard photovoltaic panel as high as 23 percent. It is the demand created by the government s "feed-in tari " that drives research like this, said Eicke Weber, the institute s director. Anybody who installs a photovoltaic system is guaranteed above- market rates for 20 years---the equivalent of an 8 percent annual return on the initial investment. "It is an ingenious mechanism," Weber said. "I always say the United States addresses the idealists, those who want to save the planet---the Birkenstock crowd. In Ger- many the law addresses anyone who wants to get 8 percent return on his investment for 20 years." the future of solar is probably Plataforma Solúcar, a Spanish solar energy complex on the Andalusian plains. I d seen photographs of the 11-megawatt power tower called PS10. Rising 377 feet high, it is surrounded by 624 sun-tracking mirrors that re ect light beams toward its crown, igniting a glow that shines like a new star. Next to it, PS20 has since been completed with twice as many heliostats and double the power. But as I crested a hilltop about 15 miles west of Seville, I saw that the German weather had followed me. e valley was enveloped in fog---a reminder that even in torrid southern Spain, solar will At a time of eco- nomic calamity, the New Deal transformed the nation's energy landscape. Seven decades later we still reap the benefits every time we flip a switch.