Saturday, January 13, 2007

Farmer who reaped the Sun

Farmer Who Reaped the Sun

Hot German July Doesn?t Faze Farmer Who Reaps the Sun Lonnie Schlein/The New York Times
Heiner Gärtner saved the family farm by turning it into a solar
electricity plant, with 10,050 solar panels.

Published: July 28, 2006
BUTTENWIESEN, Germany, July 25 ? 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. Mr. Gärtner had to win the support of Buttenwiesen?s mayor

Lonnie Schlein/The New York Times
Mr. Gärtner?s 69-year-old father, Heinrich, feeding the pigs on the
farm, whose waste is used to fuel a biogas plant to generate
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

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

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