Germany’s ‘Sun King’ Asbeck explains solar power for Vatican
Every once in a while you run into someone with so much energy that you find yourself wishing you could plug something into them to tap a bit of that excess power. On a dark, cloudy December afternoon, I spoke to Frank Asbeck, the chairman of SolarWorld and dubbed the “Sonnenkoenig” (Sun King) by a leading newspaper in his native Germany for turning an idea (mass use of photovoltaic) into a multi-billion euro corporation with 2,500 employees — in little over a decade.
Asbeck, 49, easily the most entertaining chief executive I’ve met in Germany, lit up the room with a 90-minute surge of ideas, witty comments and untempered optimism about solar power — a delightful respite from the economic doom and gloom of the current era.
But what especially interested me about him was his trip a day earlier to the Vatican, where he donated 2,400 photovoltaic panels worth 1.2 million euros that will produce enough electricity for the equivalent of 100 households (300 Megawatt hours) each year. So I asked: “Did you donate the solar panels to the Vatican because:
A) you’re a good guy
B) it was an advertising gimmick for solar power in general or
C) it was an advertising gimmick for SolarWorld.”
Asbeck answered: “First of all, I am a good person. And, secondly, we’re glad to do advertising in general for solar power because it’s a good thing and, thirdly, we did it as a gesture of thanks for a bit of inspiration I got from Pope John Paul II six years ago.”
Asbeck explained that the original idea to cover the 5,000-square metre roof of the Vatican’s Papal audience hall next to St. Peter’s Cathedral came in 2002 when he presented Pope John Paul with a sample solar cell made from sand (raw silicone) in the course of a general audience. “I showed him a solar cell and mentioned that we were able to produce energy from sand and sun,” Asbeck said, smiling at the fond memory. “And he said to me ‘God can do everything’. That gave me tremendous motivation to think more deeply about this photovoltaic technology and that we could be doing a whole lot more with it than we were. So as a small gesture of gratitude for that inspiration we installed the beautiful solar system.”
It all sounded very sincere from this extraordinarily energetic character. But, in this day and age, I still found myself wondering if his motives were truly genuine or not. What do you think?