What if electricity was suddenly made free at midday? - Dr. Patrick Hofer-Noser, Head of Renewable Energy Systems at Meyer Burger on the future of the solar industry, the opportunities and risks of a variable electricity price and why he would like to see architecturally pleasing solutions to the photovoltaic question.
Dr. Hofer, is the solar industry in a crisis?
We are in turbulent times and a consolidation is taking place. The prices of photovoltaic installations have fallen dramatically due to the competition from Asia. If solar energy generation becomes cheaper however, that is actually intrinsically good. We are entering a period of industrialisation. At the same time, this means consolidation and that can sometimes be painful. What will ultimately remain will be a few large manufacturers and a few smaller ones able to offer specific products.
The first cost reduction took place with the industrialisation of the modules. The next will occur in the installation business, the logistics and the approval process, of that I am convinced. However, even if the industry is currently going through a difficult period and negative headlines are circulating, it should not be forgotten that it is still one of the biggest growth industries.
The Meyer Burger Group sells production machinery, while at the same time owning a company that produces solar modules. Surely you are competing with yourself - is that not rather schizophrenic behaviour?!
Not at all! The two companies complement one another. Although the Meyer Burger Group supplies the technologies and the machines, it wants to show how they function. This part is undertaken by Meyer Burger PV Systems. In this way we are able to show potential customers from all over the world what is possible in a reference market and continue developing the technologies.
So Meyer Burger PV Systems only undertakes attractive, prestigious projects?
Attractive projects, yes; prestigious no. We serve the Swiss market with products for building integration, whether family homes or major projects such as the Umwelt Arena (Environment Arena) in Spreitenbach or the Monte-Rosa Hut. Special projects of this stature enable us to demonstrate the potential of solar architecture and the system concept to an international audience.
On the subject of building integration: What would you like to see from architects?
I would not like to see any urban sprawl; it is unattractive from the architectural perspective. With our products, we show that there are attractive building-integrated solutions in which the modules are at the same time the facade or the roof. I would like to see architects discover our solar systems as an attractive design element.
You keep making the point that the building must be considered as a system; what do you mean by that?
Ultimately, everything is interconnected. Nowadays, we no longer have to think only of the construction cost of a house, but also about the running costs. It therefore makes good sense to design a building to be as energy-efficient as possible right from the beginning. This begins with the building shell, but then also takes in the passive solar architecture, the solar heat and electricity generation. The overall system is ultimately crucial for the success of the individual component.
Meyer Burger PV Systems has developed the MegaSlate® solar roof system. It offers a flexible arrangement with photovoltaics, solar thermal energy and skylights in a uniform building-integrated concept. Thus we have all the components with which to build an energy-producing roof. My vision has always been the building material.
What is the average investment for a solar system? – Is the initial investment still proving a major disincentive for building clients at the present time?
Yes, it is, however Switzerland has an advantage with the current low mortgage interest rates. As a house owner, you can meet the cost of a solar installation through the mortgage. You would need to allow around CHF 25'000 for an average solar system.
If a large number of people decide in favour of a solar system in the coming years, could there be more electricity being fed into the system at times than can be sold …?
In that case, there would be a change to the electricity system. Today, generation responds to consumption. A paradigm shift is about to happen however. Imagine there are many small distributed power stations; in that case, consumption could respond to generation. Solutions with which to even out the varying electricity prices are currently under discussion in Germany. The question is why? – In reality, all we have to do is to allow the market play its role. What that would mean is when wind and sun are plentiful, electricity is very cheap and when wind and sun are in short supply, it will be corresponding more expensive.
But variable electricity prices tend to be very problematic for the industry.
Are you sure? Would it not open up new opportunities at the same time? Modern information technology offers a host of possibilities. I know a German who is today already making use of information technology to control the electricity consumption of a brewery. Its ground water pump runs twice a day. The computer only allows it to operate when electricity is cheap. Other companies could do the same. If we begin to think about what we need and when we need it, we could restrict the operation of the major electricity consumers to the times when electricity is very cheap.
But aren’t solutions of this type only realistic for a very small number of companies?
There are many application areas where this works. For private citizens too. Take your freezer for example. It needs to operate at a minimum of minus 18 degrees. Now imagine for a moment, that electricity would be free at midday. In that case, you could set the appliance to -22 degrees at midday and switch it off completely at night, when electricity is expensive. It would still be cold in the morning. - Now imagine this principle applied to large cold chains, because cold and heat are good reservoirs of energy. And energy that is not needed and the use of which can be postponed, is also a reservoir. Today, this still a vision, but I am convinced that the technology will make rapid advances here too.
The solar industry has set itself the goal of supplying 20 per cent of the domestic electricity requirement by 2025. To achieve this by that date, the rate of solar installations will have to be stepped up ten-fold annually from the present level. Is that realistic?
Yes, we will achieve it. Today in Switzerland we are at 0.08 per cent. To achieve 20 per cent, we need to install solar systems with a combined output of 12 gigawatts, that is an area of 90 square kilometres. We have 700 square kilometres of facades and roofs in Switzerland, of which 200 square kilometres are especially well-suited for photovoltaic installations. I only have to look out of the window and at a glance I can see countless flat roofs that could be covered immediately.
The area is available for sure, but how do you persuade people to make the investment?
We need predictability until the cost of producing solar electricity is the same as for other energy sources. Based on the technological development and the mass production – thanks, too, to our machines – the price of photovoltaic systems has fallen by more than 50% since 2008 and continues to fall.
Today, when I look at old forecasts dating from 2005, I note that all predictions made by the industry at that time, have been exceeded by a wide margin. The number of solar systems installed has exceeded expectations many times over.
Installing a solar module is not at all difficult. All you have to do is to hang it somewhere, connect two plugs, and that’s all there is to it.
The biggest obstacle in our path in my opinion is public policy. At present, anyone wanting to install a solar system with an output in excess of 10 kilowatts is required to submit an application to the Federal Inspectorate for Heavy Current Installations. That costs time and money. Do I also have to go to the Heavy Current Installations Inspectorate for a larger cooker? Of course not. The example shows that our legislation is still totally oriented towards large-scale power plants.
Owners of photovoltaic systems have been entitled to the cost-covering remuneration for feed-in to the electricity grid since 2009. The waiting lists are long however. Where does the problem lie?
The technology has developed much quicker than the lawmakers anticipated! I recall that from 1 May 2008, you could register solar systems with the Federal Office of Energy in order to receive the cost-covering remuneration for feed-in to the electricity grid. It was Ascension Day; I stood with my envelope at the Schanzenpost post office in Bern. We queued up to register our solar installations, imagine the scene! - On 2 May 2008, the quota was already full. The politicians had not anticipated the technology; they were taken completely by surprise.
What needs to be done to enable Switzerland to achieve the energy transformation it is striving for?
Finance, technology and policy. Switzerland has good prerequisites. We have the academies, the capital and the technology; only the policy is unpredictable. However, I am convinced that the transformation of the energy mix will happen. The question is whether Switzerland will make the most of its opportunities.
What we need is a clear road map and long-term predictability for industry, trade and energy suppliers. Only then will we be able to guarantee a cheap, good and reliable energy supply.
Mr. Hofer, you are also chairman of Cleantech Switzerland. What does Cleantech want?
Cleantech Switzerland is an export platform sponsored by the Federal Government that came into being during the last financial crisis. Its aim is to generate more business for Swiss Cleantech companies on the international market. To this end, we are linking specific projects abroad with the products and services of Swiss companies. In the first eighteen months of operation, we generated additional business for Switzerland amounting to CHF 4 million.
If we understand it correctly, Cleantech stands for clean technologies with a long-term impact.
Exactly! - Sustainable development cannot be taken for granted. When I was around 5 years of age, we loaded all the garbage on a handcart every Saturday and threw it in a hole in the middle of the woods. At that time this was completely normal! Each community had its public dump and you couldn’t bathe in most of the open waters. That is simply unthinkable today. The law was changed and appropriate technologies developed. Nowadays you can swim in the River Aare at any time and with the garbage that we now incinerate, we generate electricity at the same time. All these are technologies that we have developed in Switzerland. Today, every country is talking about Cleantech. Every country says that sustainable development is important, but in Switzerland, we practice Cleantech! The previous generation and our generation have worked to ensure that today we have an environment that is worth living in.
How do you see the future developing, for the industry and for Meyer Burger?
Energy has already become a big issue and it will become much more important. We are just at the beginning, of that I am convinced. From a global perspective, energy and water supplies are increasingly set to become key issues. Purifying water calls for energy; they go hand in hand. It is incumbent upon us to solve these challenges in the markets concerned. It involves a giant puzzle – a single system so to speak.