Germany’s ‘Sun King’ Asbeck explains solar power for Vatican

December 11, 2008

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?


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

While I cannot see how such a banal quip, albeit coming from a pope, could inspire anyone, I have few reasons to believe Mr. Asbeck’s sincerity. He is sincere about believing in solar power, and is also sincere about wanting to promote his products and company. There is nothing wrong or contradictory in all that.

Posted by Giacomo | Report as abusive

I think the man is sincere. Thanks for this nice introduction to such a man. Long may he live and long may he prosper and long may his ideas reach out and touch the world. We need to convert ASAP from fossil fuels to solar power ips posto facto amen! YES. Good post, sir. I believe his motives are genuine.

Posted by danny bloom | Report as abusive

It seems to me that his motives are genuine; I am acquainted with a man who is equally dedicated to solar energy here in the United States.
I enjoyed your article.

Posted by Chrissay | Report as abusive

Whether his motives are ‘genunine’ or not, we can all benefit from his promotion of solar power, not just SolarWorld.

Posted by Karl | Report as abusive

I haven’t managed yet to get an audience with the Pope myself so I can’t really say (and doubt I ever will), but I can imagine that that in itself must have been pretty inspiring for Asbeck. And it’s a good thing he felt inspired — he’s created a lot of jobs, cut a lot of CO2 and earned a lot of money for himself. But he’s also fortunate to have created his empire in a country, Germany, that set up a robust framework for photovoltaic. Imagine how much CO2 could be reduced each year if the United States had legislation like Germany’s Renewable Energies Act?

Posted by Erik Kirschbaum | Report as abusive

I am interested in solar power energy for air cooling air conditioned. i live in a place that is very hut and humid during the most months of the year. TAMPICO,tAMAULIPAS MEXICO in the east coast a river port, and Altamira a sea port also has plenty of sand with raw silicon

Posted by RAUL J. SEGOVIA-DELEON | Report as abusive

I worked for Frank for almost three years and although I’m sure the media attention from this helps Solarworld I am also certain his gesture is sincere. He is, as Erik Kirchbaum decribed him, a very energetic and entertaining man.

Posted by Darragh | Report as abusive