Environment Forum

Missing the solar show?

By now, the message that solar power will become a major source of electricity should have reached most parts of the world.

Huge proposed spending packages by the Obama administration as well as the Chinese government also highlight the political and economic relevance of the sector as a job creator.

When I visited Intersolar in Munich last week — the world’s biggest trade fair in the solar industry — it surprised me, however, that Germany – expected to become the world’s biggest solar market in 2009 in new installation — seemed to have missed that fact as no government politican turned up to the event. Not even the mayor of Munich stopped by.

Instead, German Economy Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (who admittedly was busy with Opel at the time), sent his greetings in written form — a move that was met with irritation by some industry players.

“I find it incredible that no politician even bothered to come here, it’s a big industry and deserves attention,” said an executive of one of Germany’s biggest solar companies, who asked not to be named.

How much electricity do you use in a year?

It was a disarmingly simple question but, embarrassingly, I didn’t have a clue when first asked that 18 months ago. Even though I’d have to describe myself as a genuine tightwad when it comes to expenditures, I simply had no idea, strangely enough, about how much money my four-person household was spending on electricity — nor how much carbon dioxide was being produced.

Now, after a year of carefully tracking the daily use of electricity, I’ve discovered a bit about when and where power is being used and, in theory, saved — without much pain. It seemed like a no-brainer and it honestly was not hard to cut our consumption by 1,000 kilowatt hours in 2008 to 5,000 kWh — saving about 200 euros and 500 kg of CO2 in the process. There were only minor sacrifices: rigidly turning off “standby” switches and unused lights, pulling plugs on little-used appliances, putting in energy-efficient lightbulbs, using the washing machine sparingly and the dryer only rarely, and replacing an inefficient dishwasher with a low-energy model.

In the past year, we used as little as 4 kWh on some days (in the summer) and as much as 30 on others (in the winter) — although most days were in the 10-to-17 range. Annoyingly, the house “wasted” about 3 kWh per day when we were away on holiday — largely due to the refrigerator, which I’ll be emptying and turning off next time. The 2008 total of 5,000 kWh (which amounted to an electricity bill of about 1,000 euros) isn’t bad for four people (one rule of thumb I’ve seen is 1,500 kWh per person/year) but I’m convinced that usage could be even less (the benchmark of 1,000 kWh per person/year is considered “thrifty”).

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 Silver Bullet or just ‘Greenwash’?

A truck with a CO2 tank stands in front of the mini plant “Schwarze Pumpe” before the first official run in Spremberg SeptemberCan carbon capture and storage (CCS) save the world?

Is this the silver bullet everyone’s been waiting for? Or just pie in the sky? Is capturing and storing carbon dioxide the technology breakthrough to cut greenhouse gas emissions without getting in the way of economic growth and industry’s “addiction” to fossil fuels? Or is it just a “greenwash” — a token gesture by some of the utilities responsible for so much of the world’s CO2 to try to persuade an increasingly green public that the great emitters are doing something to fight climate change?

Those are the questions that were hurled at Vattenfall executives on Tuesday when the Swedish-based utility opened the world’s first CCS plant in a small town south of Berlin called Schwarze Pumpe. The company believes it will be economically feasible before long to capture carbon, liquify it, and store it permanently on a large scale underground. This is only a small pilot plant producing enough power for a town of 20,000. But if it works, Vattenfall plans to build two conventional power plants 10 times larger in Germany and Denmark by 2015 and from 2020 they hope CCS will be a viable option for large-scale industrial use.

Proud as Vattenfall CEO Lars Josefsson and other executives from one of Europe’s largest utilities were at the inauguration of the 30-megawatt lignite-burning plant on Tuesday that cost 70 million euros and removes 95 percent of the CO2 emissions, they were nevertheless pummeled by journalists from across Europe wanting to know about the economics of it (and were told they’re not bad but could be better), whether they have the permits to store the CO2 underground (not yet but expected soon) and whether it was just more “greenwash” (a definite no).

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