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A Solar Revolution May Be Coming to Your Town

A little-known policy is turning sleepy central Florida into a green energy hub. Could it do the same for America at large?

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What inspires ordinary Germans to invest in renewable energy? Part of the answer is that it’s about as safe as government bonds -- and brings a better return. Under the German system, renewable energy producers are given long-term, fixed-rate contracts, designed to deliver a profit of 7 to 9 percent. This makes green energy a secure bet for both investors and banks.

The German system contains another ingenious feature: every year, the rate paid for new contracts falls, so a company that installs a large rooftop solar array this year will lock in a rate that is nearly 20 percent higher than one that waits until 2011. This has two salutary effects. First, it creates an incentive for would-be entrepreneurs to get in the game as soon as possible, thereby spurring a rush of investment (which helps explain why Germany was able to meet its renewable energy targets three years early). Second, it forces the green energy sector to innovate. If they want to stay in business and hold on to their margins, manufacturers have no choice but to continually seek out new efficiencies.

This combination of a fast-growing market and rapid innovation has turned the country into a green industry powerhouse. Germany is the leading destination for green capital, with $14 billion invested in 2007 alone. It is also a front-runner in green job creation. Some 300,000 people work in the nation’s renewable energy sector today. By 2020 green technology is expected pass the auto and electrical engineering industries to become the nation’s top employer, with more than 700,000 workers. One of the forces driving this growth is exports. In fact, many of the windmills and solar panels that are cropping up from New York to the Texas panhandle are made in Germany.

The economic benefits of this green tech boom have reached into the poorest corners of the country, including ragged patches of former East Germany. The region between Frankfurt-Oder and Dresden was once as grim as the drabbest outpost in the American Rust Belt. But in recent years, a vibrant green energy corridor, known as "solar valley," has sprung up amid the abandoned coal mines and shuttered factories. Thousands of workers from the defunct East German semiconductor industry (some of whom had languished for years on unemployment rolls) are now gainfully employed in solar panel factories.

Most importantly, although Germany’s economy has been devastated by the downturn, its green energy sector continues to thrive. In fact, Ernst & Young recently ranked the nation number one on its index of most attractive markets for renewable energy investment. "Just as cash is king," the report found, "feed-in tariffs are favored by investors," especially in uncertain financial times.

You might expect that a system like this -- one that allows countless independent producers to sell electricity at premium rates -- would come with a hefty price tag. But that is not the case. Studies have shown that even though German-style feed-in tariffs encourage the use of relatively expensive forms of renewable energy, such as solar power, they produce power more cheaply on a watt-for-watt basis than other renewable energy policies. This is because there is less investment risk, and less risk means investors can get lower-interest loans for generating equipment. This is one reason installing a solar panel in Freiburg costs less than it does in San Francisco. Renewable energy producers are also willing to accept lower profit margins because the returns are all but guaranteed. In contrast, under other systems utilities are forced to pay hefty risk premiums. This is particularly true of the quota systems (known as renewable portfolio standards) that are in use in about half of U.S. states and some European countries.