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LISA MULLINS: President Obama went on the offensive today in support of a climate change, and energy bill. The bill is massive. It would mandate big increases in the amount of renewable energy here in the US. For the first time, it would also cap US admissions of greenhouse gases, and it would establish a mechanism for trading the right to pollute. This bill comes up for a vote tomorrow in the house, but it's facing stiff opposition. In comments directed at wavering members of his own party, the President today said that the climate bill is also very much a job's bill. Mr. Obama said the measure would spur the development of new industries, and boost the country's profile in the international market for renewable energy. Lawmakers looking for a case study of what the president hopes the bill will accomplish, might wanna look to Germany. Germany has been among the world's leaders in cutting greenhouse gas submissions. And its climate policy has brought economic benefits as well. In the first part of our series on energy issues in Europe, Kathleen Schalch has our report.
KATHLEEN SCHLACH: In a clean new factory on the outskirts of Frankfurt an oder, suction cups the size of dessert plates glide and swivel, rhythmically grabbing big sheets of glass. Next, more machines on the assembly line will coat the glass with cadmium telluride to make photo voltaic panels that will turn sunlight into electricity. This plant, here at the very eastern edge of Germany, was built by the American company First Solar. It's now Germany's biggest producer of thin film solar panels, and the area's second biggest employer.
UWE BUTH: We going over here please.
KATHLEEN SCHLACH: Quality Supervisor Uwe Buth leads the way to his workstation.
UWE BOOTH: We check here every hour, one sub module.
KATHLEEN SCHLACH: Buth says he's delighted to have this job, so is his co-worker Gert Ulrich Roy-yar.
GERT ULRICH ROY-YAR: [TRANSLATED TO ENGLISH FROM GERMAN] It changed my whole life. I don't know how to express it. I'm still happy.
KATHLEEN SCHLACH: Roy-yar and Buth, and other workers throughout this region have suffered some very lean years. When the Cold War ended, and the wall that divided the two Germanys came down, whole industries in the former East Germany simply collapsed. People had to take whatever work they could get. Buth had managed a bus repair depot.
UWE BOOTH: After I lost my job, I took a job sweeping the parking lot for a supermarket.
KATHLEEN SCHLACH: The unemployment rate here is still 14 percent. But local officials say renewable energy firms have begun to revive this area's economy and its hopes for the future. Jochem Freyer heads the local job center and Martin Wilke manages the investment office.
JOCHEM FREYER: There are a thousand five hundred people directly employed in the renewable energy companies, but a larger number in the suppliers and other who are related to this industry.
MARTIN WILKE: The alternative energy is really a job creator number one, and that of course stimulates a whole region.
KATHLEEN SCHLACH: The old East has gotten a piece of an industry that's exploding in Germany, renewable energy. This country, not known for its sunshine, installs more photovoltaic panels than any other. In fact, it accounts for more than half of the global market. According to Yorg Meyer, who manages a public private partnership called the German Agency for Renewable Energy. Meyer says other types of renewable energy are booming as well.
YORG MEYER: We have a turnover in the whole market of renewable energy of more than 34 billion Euros. The other side is that we created a new job market. In the year 2008, we had 280 thousand people employed in the different industries of wind, solar, and biomass, and so on. And this is the fastest growing job market in Germany.
KATHLEEN SCHLACH: How did Germany get here? Back in 2000 it created what's known as a feed in tariff. It gives every German the right to feed renewable energy into the nation's power grid, and be paid for it. Anyone who puts a up windmill or installs solar panels on the roof can become, in effect, a mini power plant.
YORG MEYER: The good thing is that by the feed in tariff system, once you have installed these solar modules, you get paid a certain price for the next twenty years and that gives you the guarantee that after, lets say, ten, eleven years you will be in the zone of profitability.
KATHLEEN SCHLACH: Utility customers pay a little extra for this renewable power, but, Mayer says, not much extra. The average surcharge is four dollars per month.
YORG MEYER: It's a little tax for a big effect. But as a tradeoff Germany gets a really good technology to protect the climate.
KATHLEEN SCHLACH: It's also helped Germany shift to renewable energy faster than any other country in the world.
RAINER HENRICHS-RAHLWES: As a result of that, we have managed to be at 15 percent renewable electricity in Germany already.
KATHLEEN SCHLACH: Rainer Henrichs-Rahlwes heads a trade group called the German Renewable Energy Federation. He says, the German government expects the percentage of renewable energy to double to 30 percent by 2020. His own group is even more optimistic.
RAINER HENRICHS-RAHLWES: My association believes that we will be close to 50 percent. Provided these payments go on, and I think this is based on political will.
KATHLEEN SCHLACH: Today, most of Germany's renewable energy comes from wind and hydropower, solar trails far behind. It provides just around one percent of Germany's electric power, but this share will rise. The variable cost of producing solar electricity has been dropping fast, from about 20 dollars per kilowatt-hour six years ago, to just one today.
BURGHARD VON WESTERHOLT: Reaching this milestone, one dollar per watt shows the world that we are able to be competitive to fossil energies.
KATHLEEN SCHLACH: Burghard von Westerholt is Managing Director of First Sollar's Frankfurt an Oder factory. He says, as the cost keeps dropping, demand for solar energy will grow, creating more jobs. He credits Germany's feed-in tariff for starting the whole process, by guaranteeing that there would be a market. Von Westerholt expects other countries to catch up with Germany, 50 have now adapted their own feed-in tariff systems. Still he says, Germany's vision gave its industry and this struggling region of Eastern Germany, a valuable head start.
BURGHARD VON WESTERHOLT: The knowledge, the experts, they are all located in Germany, and that means the industry worldwide will start from Germany.
KATHLEEN SCHLACH: For the World, this is Kathleen Schalch, Frankfurt an Oder, Germany.