By Erik Kirschbaum
(Erik Kirschbaum, a U.S. citizen, has worked for 18 years as a Reuters correspondent in Germany, Austria and the Balkans.)
BERLIN (Reuters) - My father warned me "money doesn't grow on trees" and he was right, of course.
But I have discovered that money can fall out of the sky -- if you have the equipment to catch it.
In an age of global warming, rising fossil fuel prices and dwindling natural resources, I've learned that in Germany and a growing number of countries, solar power can give you more than just a feeling of "doing something" for the environment.
It can also give you a steady stream of income.
My roof has been turned into a cash machine, thanks to a state-mandated "feed-in tariff" that requires utilities to pay anyone who installs a photovoltaic system more than double the market rates for the electricity produced for the grid.
The 34 sleek black panels, measuring about 1 meter by 1.5 meters (yards) each, lie inconspicuously on the slopes of the roof as they quietly harvest enough power for two households -- and generate annual revenues of some 3,600 euros ($5,300).
In other words: Every day about 10 euros ($15) worth of energy from the sun (or even daylight) lands on the roof and is converted into electricity through the wonders of photovoltaic.
The local utility is required, by law, to buy it off me at a fixed rate of 49 cents per kilowatt -- guaranteed for 20 years.
The entire supply of rooftop power spins through the meter into the grid at the elevated rate and the power used returns through another meter in my basement at the market rate of 20 cents per kilowatt.
A London friend who installed a PV system on his roof earns the market rate of 9 pence (13 cents) per kilowatt that he feeds into his grid and has to pay 12 pence (17 cents) for what he takes in from the grid.
It annoys him that Britain is one of the few countries without a higher feed-in tariff to promote private investment in the green technology. He reckons in the long run his outlay was still worthwhile because it added value to his house and freed him from the whims of power company price increases.
SILVER BULLET FOR CLIMATE CHANGE?
Yet no one should feel any pity for the utilities paying out the higher feed-in tariffs for they simply pass along the costs (nearly 1 billion euros a year in Germany) to their customers.
Thus, those with no solar panels are subsidizing those who have them. I'm not sure that's fair. But it's the law.
About 47 countries -- including Spain, Greece, Portugal, France and Italy -- have adopted laws modeled on Germany's 2000 "Erneuerbares Energie Gesetz" (Renewable Energy Act).
It may not be the silver bullet the world is looking for to solve climate change but the abundance of solar energy means photovoltaic produces fast results in reducing CO2 emissions.
Germany now has more than 300,000 PV systems and that is projected to triple by 2013. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier says he will put a PV system on his roof at home.
Even though Germany is often covered by clouds, the EEG has helped the northern European country become the world's leader in PV and eliminate 10 million tonnes of CO2 each year. Some 55 percent of the world's total PV output comes from Germany.
Some farmers in Germany derive more income selling the electricity collected from solar panels on their barn roofs than they do from their harvests or livestock.
Germany gets 3 percent of its electricity from photovoltaic.
The total worldwide peak power of installed PV was about 6,000 gigawatts (more than 3,000 from Germany) at the end of 2006 and was forecast to rise to 9,000 gigawatts this year. In Germany, some predict 100,000 gigawatts of PV within 10 years.
The idea of installing solar panels had been on my mind for years but there were always reasons not to do it -- it seemed costly, my roof was not pointed south, and there was always a worry solar panel prices might later plunge.
But when I took a close look, I saw I could turn a profit.
So instead of a just plundering my savings for a 3 kw system to produce enough for a family, I got a bank loan to double the size of the investment to about 30,000 euros for 7 kw.Ever since I've been happily answering a deluge of questions from neighbors, strangers and colleagues about the nuts and bolts of whether it really works. It does. It's magic.