DALLGOW-DÖBERITZ, Germany — On a former military airfield in the eastern German state of Brandenburg, 88,600 crystalline photovoltaic panels stand in a proud salute. The skies that were filled with zeppelins a century ago are now empty, save for a thick patchwork of dark clouds.
For Saferay, the Berlin-based firm that operates the Dallgow-Döberitz solar park, the sea of deep blue silicon represents easy money. The park runs itself; not a soul is evident there on most days. The only regular personnel are the lawn mowers, who periodically trim the grass so it does not block the panels. All that's needed is the sun -- however little of it shines in this particularly unsunny corner of an unsunny country.
"It was easy to set up," Sandra Meissner, the Saferay project manager responsible for erecting the plant in less than two months last year, tells me as she maneuvers her Audi into the solar park, "because all the modules are the same."
But for Q-Cells, the German company that built those modules, that's precisely the problem. The company was the world's largest producer of solar cells as recently as 2008, but struggled when the specialized technology became a mass-produced commodity. Cheap solar panels from China began flooding the market -- Q-Cells, no longer able to compete, filed for bankruptcy in April in what the conservative Heritage Foundation was quick to call Germany's "Solyndra moment."
On the surface, the similarities between the German firm and its American counterpart that had failed seven months earlier were striking. Both had benefited from generous public subsidies: In the case of Solyndra, $535 million in federal loan guarantees; in the case of Q-Cells, a German law that required electricity consumers to subsidize producers of solar energy to the tune of $10 billion a year. Both were regarded as models for the future of renewable energy, only to fall victim to falling solar cell prices and competition from China. And both quickly became punching bags for conservatives, who enjoyed a told-you-so moment at the expense of government-backed solar energy.
But the similarities mask a fundamental difference: The federal money spent on Solyndra sparked a public outcry because the U.S. solar market couldn't get off the ground. The funds supporting Q-Cells came under fire because the German solar manufacturing industry had grown too quickly, only to collapse when the subsidies on which it had grown reliant needed to be cut.
Most visitors to cloudy Germany would never guess that the country is the world leader in solar energy, with nearly as much photovoltaic capacity as the rest of the world combined. The country isn't exactly bathed in the sun's rays. A side-by-side solar resource map put out by the U.S. government-owned National Renewable Energy Laboratory, with red indicating brilliant sun and purple denoting thick cloud cover, shows the United States dressed in healthy hues of yellow and orange while Germany is almost entirely frostbitten blue-violet. Aside from Alaska and part of western Washington state, just about every inch of the United States gets more energy from the sun than the sliver of southern Germany that gets the most.
Yet Germany installed 7,500 megawatts of solar panels last year, compared with 1,855 in the United States -- a country with nearly four times Germany's population and 28 times its landmass.
But even as solar energy production continues to boom, Germany's manufacturers of solar technology are collapsing at an alarming rate. In the four months preceding Q-Cells' bankruptcy, another leading German solar cell firm, Solon, filed for bankruptcy, as did two major solar thermal firms in the country. Two weeks after the Q-Cells bankruptcy, the Arizona-based module producer First Solar announced that it was shutting down its operations in Germany.
How did this decidedly unsunny country come to dominate the world solar energy market, only to see its solar manufacturing crash to the ground? The roots of the industry's ascent -- and its eventual demise -- lie in an unlikely conversation 22 years ago.
1990 was a year of head-spinning change in Germany. The previous November, the Berlin Wall had come down, sending thousands of East Germans across the crumbling Iron Curtain into the West. One by one, the barriers to reunification fell, leading to the official establishment of a single Germany on Oct. 3, 1990.