Obama’s Climate Moment in Berlin

It was predictable – probably inevitable – that Barack Obama would speak at the Brandenburg Gate on his visit to Berlin, today. The presidential trip, after all, coincided almost to the day with the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s famous speech at the same site. Then, Kennedy declared U.S. solidarity with Germans trapped on the Soviet side of the Berlin Wall, as well as with those in the West who were encircled by the Soviets, saying, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” (I am a Berliner.)

The Brandenburg Gate was also the setting for President Ronald Reagan’s most famous quote, his challenge addressed to the then-leader of the then-Soviet Empire: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” (Timing was also a factor in this case – Reagan’s speech was on June 12, 1986.)

Still, it would have been nice if Obama had done the unexpected, if instead of using the Brandenburg Gate as a backdrop, the U.S. president had visited the Reichstag, the German parliament building just a block away. After all, the Reichstag is a far better symbol of the greatest challenge facing the world today.

The Reichstag. (Photo by Osha Gray Davidson)

The Reichstag. (Photo by Osha Gray Davidson)

As Obama himself said today: “[Climate change]….is the global threat of our time. And for the sake of future generations, our generation must move toward a global compact to confront a changing climate before it is too late. That is our job. That is our task. We have to get to work.”

In Berlin, there is no better symbol than the Reichstag for “getting to work” on transforming our dangerous and antiquated energy economy. Following the reunification of the two Germany’s, the Reichstag was rebuilt by the English architect Sir Norman Foster, to be the greenest parliament building in the world.

Solar "light sculpture" in the Reichstag, Berlin. Photo credit Osha Gray Davidson, 2012.

Solar “light sculpture” in the Reichstag. (Photo by Osha Gray Davidson)

The glass dome on the roof symbolizes openness and transparency in government (timely issues themselves). It also funnels sunlight into the main parliamentary chamber, reducing the need for artificial light. Solar panels are also built into the Reichstag roof.

A large portion of the building’s electricity comes from a cogenerator in the basement that burns vegetable oil. Excess heat from the process is pumped into a subterranean aquifer where it is retrieved in the winter. Electricity not produced on site is purchased from renewable energy providers — who use solar, wind and hydroelectric resources.

If President Obama had had the time, he could have seen an even better symbol of the energy transition (Energiewende in German) by traveling down to a small farming village in the Black Forest. I visited Bernau im Schwarzwald last summer on a “renewable energy” tour of Germany. The village wasn’t on my schedule. It was just a cheap and convenient place to spend the night as I traveled to energy projects in nearby cities. Located in a lush valley, it seemed that nearly every roof in the village was covered in solar panels. Below is a picture I took of a small section of the village. I’ve placed red circles around each solar array I counted. Some are photovoltaic panels – PV – and others are solar water heaters.

Solar roofs in a German village (Photo by Osha Gray Davidson)

Solar roofs in a German village (Photo by Osha Gray Davidson)

There’s nothing special about this section of Bernau. Aim your camera in a different direction and you’ll get the same basic results. The village itself isn’t unique. I traveled throughout Germany and saw pretty much the same scene wherever I went: roofs covered with solar panels. (And, very often, wind turbines adding power to the grid).

I thought about Bernau recently while hiking in Phoenix, Arizona, where I live. Here’s a picture from that excursion, with solar arrays again circled.

Solar roofs in Phoenix.

Solar roofs in Phoenix.

The difference is pretty obvious. Not only are there far fewer arrays, but the size of each one is many times smaller than the average array in Bernau. In fact, there’s more power being generated on a given single roof in the German village than there is on all the roofs in the picture of Phoenix.

By streamlining permits for installing solar panels and providing market incentives to individuals and groups are willing to invest in renewable energy, Germany is far ahead of the United States in building a renewable energy infrastructure. There’s a lot President Obama can learn from the German Energiewende, lessons that translate into PV solutions in the USA.

As Obama put it, standing before the Brandenburg Gate, “We are not only citizens of America or Germany — we are also citizens of the world. And our fates and fortunes are linked like never before.”

He got that right. Now, he needs to lead America in building an energy policy that makes our shared world sustainable for generations to come.

Two Cheers for U.S. Solar Power Record

Word that the United States set a record for installing solar photovoltaic panels in the first quarter of 2012 is all over the news (here and here and here). And rightly so. While this is good news, it is important to see the accomplishment in context. Feeling complacent? Check out the graphic below.

The take home message is: Lookin’ good, America. Could be lookin’ a whooooole lot better.


Click here to view infographic as a PDF file.

Solar Power’s “Nasty Little Secret” Isn’t Nasty or Secret

Solar panels on ASU parking garage, Tempe, AZ

The charges leveled by a solar industry insider recently were deadly serious.

“Solar panels do not work that well….and few know it,” revealed Ray Burgess, president and CEO of Solar Power Technologies. Writing in AOL Energy on October 7, Burgess appeared to be a reluctant or even heroic truth-teller, airing the solar industry’s dirty laundry with the best of intentions. (Several times while reading the piece, Jerry McGuire’s Mission Statement came to mind.)

Burgess wrote that “if we who love solar and alternative energy do not put our house in order, those who believe solar is some kind of government-funded shell-game will do it for us. This would be a disaster for our country.”

In other words, Burgess is not just a whistle blower, but a patriot.

Using anecdotes and scientific data, Burgess walks readers through the solar industry’s dismal state of affairs, which can be summed up simply: Photovoltaic panels are crap. They fall apart quickly on their own. Their electrical output is subject to “dozens and dozens” of threats — from bullets to golf balls. (Wait — what about meteorites and chunks of blue ice?) One of his listed threats, dust, is a real concern. But here Burgess establishes a leitmotif for his solar indictment, blowing problems far out of proportion.

“In 2009,” Burgess writes in one anecdote, “Google found that after it cleaned its panels, energy doubled.”

Here’s what the Red, White and Blue Whistle Blower left out.

“We have two different sets of solar panels on our [MountainView, California] campus,” Google explained in its official blog,”completely flat ones installed on carports, and rooftop ones that are tilted.” Washing doubled the output of the flat-mounted panels.

But, the blog continued, “The rooftop solar panels are a different story. Our data indicates that rain does a sufficient job of cleaning the tilted solar panels….So for now, we’ll let Mother Nature take care of cleaning our rooftop panels.”

Another fact Burgess fails to mention is that nearly all solar installations are tilted, primarily to capture the most sunlight. Owners of solar panels do need to maintain them for peak performance, but that’s hardly a nasty little secret.

Burgess also calls claims that solar panels lose their ability to convert sunlight into electricity at just 0.5 percent per year, “bogus.” According to the prestigious National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Burgess writes, panels degrade “as much as 4.5% a year. Or more.”

At this point, you don’t need to be an expert to be suspicious, just a competent reader. The phrase “as much as” refers to an upper limit. Tacking on the words “or more” attempts to recast the ceiling as a floor.

In fact, as reporter Anne Paine points out in a balanced story on how solar panels perform over time, NREL found that most panels studied over the last 40 years degraded at a rate under 1% per year.

Questioned by Paine in The Tennessean, Burgess back-peddled, admitting that his 4.5 percent claim was “an extreme case.”

The rest of Burgess’ Jeremiad continues in this same vein, citing imaginary problems or inflating real ones to absurd proportions.

Burgess’ motive for airing what he called solar’s “nasty little secret” may have something to do with his niche within the industry he claims to love. His company doesn’t actually make solar panels — it makes devices that monitor the performance of solar panels. Just what you’d need if you wanted to know, say, how fast your panels were degrading.

If this were simply about a company cranking up the fear factor to sell more widgets, it wouldn’t be worth writing about. Advertisers prey on consumer fears all the time. But, timing is key here. According to a study released this week, the number of jobs in the solar industry grew at a rate of 6.8 percent in the passed year — almost ten times faster than the U.S. economy as a whole. Compare that to employment in the fossil fuels industry, which is expected to shrink by 2 percent in the coming year.

The words of the Saudi oil minister in 1976 could come today from Big Coal and Big Oil: “The big powers are seriously trying to find alternatives to oil by seeking to draw energy from the sun or water. We hope to God they will not succeed quickly because our position in that case will be painful.”

In the recent collapse of solar manufacturer Solyndra, the dirty energy industries see an opening to stave off the pain of competition from renewable, clean energy. They, and the politicians they  support, are hoping to use the Solyndra failure as a wedge to bring down the entire renewable energy tree — and dispose of the current administration which has done a lot to support alternative energy. (Not enough, perhaps, but a lot.)

The Burgess piece provides the kind of ammunition the fossil fuels industry wants, even if the charges aren’t accurate. Once these horror stories are published, they bounce around the Internet and are repeated until no one knows whether the figures quoted are right. It’s already happening. The article was the basis for a piece that ran in a Charleston Daily Mail (W.VA) blog under the headline, “Expert: Solar panels don’t work well.

Whistle blowers can play a critical role in keeping businesses and governments honest. Sometimes, however, they just blow.