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Germany aims to revive its solar power industry which was booming a decade ago

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Europe wants to make solar power its biggest energy source by the end of this decade, and that will mean tripling the amount of energy generated by solar in just seven years. Right now, the majority of solar panels are made in China. As NPR's Rob Schmitz reports, politicians and clean energy businesses in Europe are hoping to change that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE WHIRRING)

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Bright yellow robotic arms appear to be waving and then saluting as they pick up silicon solar cells and gently affix them to glass panels here at the Heckert Solar assembly floor in Chemnitz, a German city near the Czech border. Sascha Hahn watches quietly at the end of the line, arms crossed, as his colleagues place finished solar panels into boxes labeled, Made in Germany.

SASCHA HAHN: A day, we make 3,000. And we also say in a week, 20,000. Twenty thousand panels in one week, and it's still too less because the market want more.

SCHMITZ: The market wants more because in Germany, energy is suddenly hard to come by. Russia's invasion of Ukraine forced Germany to do away with its massive supply of imported Russian natural gas, and now it's again looking to alternatives like solar power. I say again because more than a decade ago, Germany's solar power industry was booming.

UWE KRAUTWURST: We were one of the market leader in 2012.

SCHMITZ: Uwe Krautwurst heads marketing for Heckert Solar. He says the golden age of Germany's solar power industry was the first decade of this century. That's when the government incentivized solar panels with feed-in tariffs, paying solar panel owners back for contributing energy to the grid. But in 2013, the government changed the law. That made renewables more expensive, and the industry collapsed. Seventy thousand people in Germany's solar industry lost their jobs, and Heckert found itself one of the only manufacturers left in this once-popular renewable energy park known as Saxony's Solar Valley.

KRAUTWURST: And so the industry moved from Germany to Asia.

SCHMITZ: Without government support, German solar panels were quickly replaced by ones made in China, which, since 2011, invested 10 times more in the industry than Europe did.

JOACHIM GOLDBECK: They had free research centers, governmental research centers on the side of the producers, subsidized energy - so many components which made life - technical life easy in China.

SCHMITZ: Joachim Goldbeck, CEO of Goldbeck Solar, says starting around a decade ago, German companies watched as their Chinese rivals took over every step of the global solar power supply chain. Last year, China made 97% of the silicon wafers that go into solar panels, and more than three-quarters of the world's solar panels themselves.

GOLDBECK: The only way of going against that in Germany or in the U.S. or anywhere else would - basically someone developing a similar strategy.

SCHMITZ: That someone, says Goldbeck, is the Biden administration, which, as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, put forth a range of incentives for solar panel producers and owners.

GOLDBECK: And I think now, with the Inflation Reduction Act in the U.S., there is a strong will to do something similar to position this industry back in the U.S. And this clear statement is now lacking in Germany.

SCHMITZ: When he's not CEO of a solar company, Goldbeck serves as president of the German Solar Industry Association. He says German politicians talk about bringing back the country's solar industry, but they're not walking the walk with subsidies and tax credits, like China or the U.S. has. German member of parliament Katrin Uhlig begs to differ.

KATRIN UHLIG: We have an aim for at least 80% renewable energies in the electricity sector by 2030 now. So we are changing the environment for companies to invest in Europe.

SCHMITZ: Ten years ago, when the floor collapsed from Germany's solar industry and the conservative government of Angela Merkel instead prioritized natural gas from Russia, Uhlig was so frustrated, she decided to run for office. She's now a member of Germany's Green Party, representing the western city of Bonn. She points to the European Union's Net-Zero Industry Act, which proposes that 40% of all solar panels installed in Europe be produced in Europe. She says Germany is working on similar measures.

UHLIG: If we had built more renewable energy sources, we wouldn't be, in general, as dependent on fossil fuels as we are now. But at the same time, you cannot change the past. So I'm looking forward.

SCHMITZ: Europe's solar industry is looking forward too. Gunter Erfurt is CEO of the Swiss company Meyer Burger, a leading solar panel manufacturer. He says Europe's Net-Zero Industry Act has not yet passed Parliament, and it may take a while to do so. But if it does, he says, it, alongside the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, could shift the global balance of clean technology away from China.

GUNTER ERFURT: Our industry requires massive scale in order to become super competitive also against Asian rivals and, in particular, Chinese companies. So I believe it could be a double strike if EU would also put packages together for temporary state aid, helping to put fertilizer on the industry to help it growing.

SCHMITZ: But Erfurt says the biggest challenge is time. It's taking the EU Parliament too long to pass a bill that would generate clean tech investment. That's part of the reason that Meyer Burger has decided to build its next big solar panel plant not in the EU but in Arizona to take advantage of tax credits in the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act.

Back on the solar panel assembly line in Chemnitz, Heckert Solar's Uwe Krautwurst is also hoping that both the EU and Germany act fast on helping resurrect his country's solar industry. He says an ongoing Chinese monopoly of the world's solar panels is dangerous.

KRAUTWURST: One danger is, for example, that you have no industry here and no further research and no further developments here in the European Union.

SCHMITZ: And that, he says, would be a sad ending for a country that helped spur growth in the solar power industry in the first place.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Chemnitz, Germany.

(SOUNDBITE OF JK BEATBOOK'S "SOFT LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.