[permaculture] FW: [SANET-MG] Hot German July Doesn't Faze Farmer Who Reaps the Sun

darren at permaculture.biz darren at permaculture.biz
Fri Jul 28 23:51:04 EDT 2006


 

 

  _____  

From: Sustainable Agriculture Network Discussion Group
[mailto:SANET-MG at LISTS.IFAS.UFL.EDU] On Behalf Of Joel Gruver
Sent: Saturday, July 29, 2006 7:45 AM
To: SANET-MG at LISTS.IFAS.UFL.EDU
Subject: [SANET-MG] Hot German July Doesn't Faze Farmer Who Reaps the Sun

 

Hello folks,

 

The following article in today's NY Times may be of interest:

 

Joel

 

BTW Are any you aware of farmers in the US that have made a major investment
in photovoltaic panels ?

 

Hot German July Doesn't Faze Farmer Who Reaps the Sun 
    By Mark Landler 
    The New York Times 

    Friday 28 July 2006 

    Buttenwiesen, Germany - Surely Heiner Gärtner is one of the only farmers
in Germany, if not most of Europe, who greets the dawn of yet another
cloudless day with anticipation rather than angst. 

    As Germany sizzles through what is expected to be its hottest July on
record, crops are shriveling and farmers are growing desperate. Some have
petitioned the European Union to allow sheep and cattle to graze on land
normally off limits, because their own fields are scorched. 

    Here on Mr. Gärtner's 200-acre farm, however, the fields are covered
with 10,050 solar panels, which soak up the sunshine and convert it into
electricity. The ambient hum in the air is not the sound of insects but of
transformers carrying a high-voltage current to the villages nearby. 

    "We've had so much sun," said Mr. Gärtner, 34, a wide-brimmed hat
shielding his face from the rays. "It would be better if we could have this
much sun with less heat. But you can't have everything." 

    Extreme heat actually reduces the efficiency of the solar panels, he
said, pointing to a dial that showed the plant was running at 83 percent of
its capacity. On cooler days, the panels operate at full capacity. 

    Even so, this is shaping up as a thriving summer for Mr. Gärtner -
vindicating his decision in 2003 to turn this 150-year-old pig farm into a
small-scale electricity plant. Switching from pigs to power saved his
family's enterprise, which was teetering on the edge of economic ruin. 

    "I couldn't repair the roof if I only bred pigs," said Mr. Gärtner, a
self-confident fellow with a spiel that is far more entrepreneurial than
agricultural. "We have to compete worldwide these days. Pork from Brazil
costs half as much as German pork. Our costs are simply too high." 

    When Mr. Gärtner took over the farm from his father in 2002, his options
seemed few and dismal. He considered selling most of the property and
keeping only his family's stone house - a last vestige of the farm started
by his great-grandfather, who kept cattle, chickens and other animals. 

    But there were few buyers, even for a farm that is fairly large by
southern German standards and blessed with broad, flat meadows amid the
gently rolling countryside of Bavaria. Farms in eastern Germany and Poland
are much larger and therefore more economically viable. 

    Although the recent collapse in global negotiations over tariffs, farm
subsidies and other barriers at the World Trade Organization may protect
European farmers awhile longer, Bavaria has long promoted its
high-technology industry over agriculture. "Germany is an industrial
country, not an agricultural country," Mr. Gärtner said. "We're on the wrong
end." 

    Visiting a classmate in northern Germany after graduating from college
with a degree in agricultural engineering, Mr. Gärtner was struck by the
windmills that dot the countryside there. His father had already
experimented with making biodiesel fuel out of rapeseed - even running a
Volkswagen with it - so the concept of renewable energy was not alien to
him. 

    Europe, seeking to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, has encouraged
the development of alternative energy by offering hefty subsidies for people
to put up windmills on their property. Germany's wind-power industry is the
world's largest, yet growth here has slowed as people have begun to protest
the proliferation of these giant propellers near their homes. 

    Bavaria, with its inland location, lacks the coastal breezes that turn
windmills. But it gets more sunshine than other parts of Germany. Moreover,
the Gärtner farm, which is known as Maierhof, has an especially sunny
location, with southern exposure and few hills to block the light. 

    In 2004, Germany passed a new law that guaranteed people who built solar
parks a minimum price for each kilowatt of electricity that was two to three
times the market price. 

    That prompted Mr. Gärtner to investigate the possibility of turning his
fields of corn, wheat and barley into rows of photovoltaic panels. With a
lack of solar experts in Germany, he and his classmate, Ove Petersen, taught
themselves the technology (they are now partners in the venture). 

    The hardest part, he said, was obtaining loans to finance the roughly $5
million in construction costs. Mr. Gärtner also had to persuade the mayor of
Buttenwiesen to allow him to string power lines across the fields. With only
a handful of farmers in Germany installing these panels on a large scale,
"people really had no idea what we were talking about," he said. 

    The project is a family affair. Mr. Gärtner recruited his sister,
Annette, who is an architect in the nearby city of Augsburg, to design the
complex. His 69-year-old father, Heinrich, provides moral support, keeping
an eye on the dials when he is not feeding the fish in his pond. 

    When his panels run at full capacity, Mr. Gärtner figures the farm could
supply power to all 7,000 residents of the village. The utility that buys
his electricity, however, uses it to meet demand at peak periods, like
during this heat wave, when air-conditioners are running full blast. 

    Mr. Gärtner makes more than $600,000 a year from the sale of this
electricity, which will allow him to pay off his loans in 15 to 16 years.
That is good for him, because the government is phasing out the preferential
prices over the next decade. The Mercedes parked in his farmyard attests to
his success. 

    As he sees it, his farm is merely adapting to an economic cycle that
happens to favor a different sort of energy. 

    "Animals are energy too; they create food for people," Mr. Gärtner said.
"At the moment, power is more profitable than food. That may not always be
the case. You have to be flexible." 

    To hedge his bets, Mr. Gärtner has held on to his 1,000 pigs. The other
day, they were huddled in a shed, sleeping through the searing heat. With
the world's population expanding, he believes, the price of pork may someday
rebound enough to make it a viable business again. 

    In the meantime, the pigs serve another purpose: Mr. Gärtner uses their
waste to fuel a biogas plant, which also generates electricity. "One of the
criticisms of solar energy is that it is unpredictable because the sun
doesn't always shine," he said. "This is completely predictable." 

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