Sunday, May 13, 2012

Making Watts While the Sun Shines

Driving through the countryside of Germany, it becomes evident that there is a growing trend towards installing solar collectors.  On roofs and in fields, it appears the Germans have decided that the investment in solar energy is a wise one.  It's not just Germany, either.  Solar panels are becoming ubiquitous in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Austria—all over this region of Europe, at least.

Just to give you a feel for how popular these panels are, all of these photos were taken on a single day,  April 29, 2012 between 8:00 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., on a single side of the road as we drove past.  There were many others as well that I just wasn't fast enough to capture.  Still, this illustrates that solar collectors are found on houses, barns, industries, retail spaces and in fields.

Update, 9 June 2012:  The Austrian Times reports HERE that the city of Graz, Austria is offering an opportunity for everyone in the city to generate their own power from solar cells.  Now, even persons renting apartment can save on their energy bills by buying and leasing back their own solar panels in a nearby solar energy farm.

This is the only photo that is duplicated (a close-up follows) but I wanted to show that the panels extend onto other roofs as well.

Much of this entire village is paneled with solar collectors.

Different part of the same community.

Solar collector arrays on curved rooftops.

At first glance, I thought this was an art installation.  

It makes one wonder why, if solar energy is so popular in northern Europe, wouldn't it be an even better investment in the southern United States (for example) where the sun is stronger and cloud cover less frequent?  It just seems to make sense in not only reducing the demands on conventional power systems but by contributing to the power grid as well.  Granted, it's not a perfect panacea, but after Chernobyl and Fukushima it surely is part of a better answer not only to our power needs but towards a safer, cleaner future.


  1. Martha, this is certainly a legitimate question, and without doubt it would make sense to introduce decentral energy production especially in those places where the rate of delivery of solar radiation is high.

    The reason, why this did not and does not happen, has certainly also a political component: Decentral production means also a disperse structure, which on the one side is not organised well enough to articulate demands, and which on the other side is not attractive for political parties as there is not one focal point to ask for donations (and offer advantages to). And as long as the price point for energy is low enough, many people don't want to change their habits (or even worse, start thinking).
    Europe had felt the oil crisis of 1973 as very painful and since then started trying to divert the energy sources. Countries with a strong centralized structure like France switched completely to nuclear energy, with the effect that they had to buy electric in the cold days this January, and Germany on the other hand now reaps the merits of a head start in the federal support of solar energy usage, resulting in the widespread installation of solar panels.

  2. Thanks, Markus, for your reply. I have several other question, if you have the time and insight to answer: Is the federal support in Germany primarily directed toward solar research or subsidies to individuals and businesses for installation of solar panels—or perhaps both? Also, are there subsidies for the production of solar collectors in Germany? Are there other ways as well in which the government encourages distributed, alternative power generation? Do you have any insight as to why so many European countries are installing solar collectors? Are they all subsidizing alternative generation in one form or another? Are power companies obliged to buy excess alternative power from individuals/businesses? Were these incentives in place before Fukushima and Germany's decision to mothball its nuclear power plants? Many questions. Appreciate your input.

    1. Martha, I am certainly not a specialist in term of energy politics, so please take my answer as coming just from a politics aware citizen.
      Since the oil crisis the federal government has supported central and decentral producti of energy, with the emphasis only slowly wandering from nuclear and fossile energy towards renewable energies. In the support of science, there were relatively little funds for renewable energy in comparison to the classical forms, but for house owners for example there is direct co-funding since at least since two decades for thermal solar power units. A bit shorter in time, but much more successful was the indirect funding of solar electricity: The power companies are obliged by law to pay a cost effective price for solar electricity, at a deminuishing rate over time to adapt to the lowering price level of solar panels. A similar measure was installed for wind energy, and this stimulated that growth of renewable energy power plants that becomes visible now. At the same time prices for solar panels came down and also German producers gained a good market share.

      In sunny areas decentral solar thermal power units are a no-brainer, as their installation is cheap and for example hot water can produced during the summer on an almost zero cost basis. To replace fossile energy for heating is much more difficult, but here especially Germany has seen lots of laws demanding better insulation of all newly built houses, this way driving down demand for heating power. Additionally cheap credits support the installation of firewood-driven heating units, mainly using up excess and waste wood in order to become less dependant on oil and gas imports.

      The Tchernobyl incident already had brought the installation of new nuclear power plants to a halt, and Fukushima has made clear that the German population is willing to support that change towards renewable energy.

  3. Thank you, Markus, for taking the time to provide such a thoughtful and insightful response about the policies in place in Germany. In the meantime, one can only hope we are moving quickly enough toward cleaner, safer, healthier world.

  4. Thanks to both you and Markus for providing information on alternative energy. In many ways the U.S. is behind in providing government support for solar energy. I'm guessing that part of the reason is that there is no lobby group in Washington for individual home owners, but there is for power companies. Minnesota has been an innovator in supporting wind generated electricity, and South Dakota is following their lead now. We have new windmills going in near us, and should have hundreds of them in a year or two. In the future we will need ALL the sources of energy we can find as we move away from fossil fuels. Know what they call a huge solar energy spill? A sunny day.

  5. I'm old enough to remember the incentives in place in the 1970s in the US to make our homes more energy efficient. One would think similar incentives now for solar collectors could potentially create lots of jobs, stimulate the economy, reduce energy losses, contribute to the power grid and help individuals feel they are contributing to the solution rather than just being part of the problem. I think many people would feel good about that.

    Jeff, are those wind farms in Minnesota government, public or private initiatives? Last I heard, Texas was the leading producer of wind energy in the US but oilman T. Boone Pickens, one of the primary supporters, got out of the business when he lost more than $100 million.

    We've got eight solar-powered window shades on our rooftop apartment in Vienna and I'm always amazed when we haven't had a sunny day in months, the solar collector (smaller than a business-size envelope) has been under several inches of snow for days, we've had the blind closed all the long winter's night, and we press a button and the shade opens! Thrilling! Granted, it might not take much energy to move a metal blind but his simple experience gives me hope that the technologies for both collectors and batteries is advancing. With the growing demand for all things electric, including new demands for electric cars, motorcycles, bikes, etc. throughout the world, its only logical we are going to have to change the way we're doing things.

    Will homeowners have to start their own Super-PACs?