Getting electricity from the garden
Solar panels on our roofs will soon be a thing of the past, says Markus Weingartner. That’s why the parttime inventor builds solar furniture.
The table in the garden of a family home in Niederglatt, not far from Zurich, looks like many a garden table — simple design, chromium steel, matt finish. But there’s a difference: one leg reveals a cable that runs along the ground and ends up in a power point. The table leaf is black and turns out to be made of glass, covering a set of solar panels. “My solar table — an energyproducing piece of furniture,” says Markus Weingartner, an engineer, father of two, hobby innovator and furniture creator. The “solar table” generates 280 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, enough to cover 30 percent of a person’s energy consumption or to power an e-bike for 70 kilometers every day.
The Swiss authorities did not warm to Weingartner’s concept for a long time because unlike rooftop panels, the electricity generated by the table is fed directly into the private grid through a power point. It does not have to be sold into the public grid and then repurchased, and it can be used instantaneously.
“Most people don’t even know that this is now possible,” Weingartner says. Although the Federal Inspectorate for Heavy Current Installations ( ESTI) took a lot of convincing (Weingartner: “It was a battle”) it eventually sanctioned the idea. This made Switzerland only the second country after the Netherlands to allow such a feed-in.
South African Railway Adventure
Originally, railways were Weingartner’s abiding passion. He studied electrical engineering, joined ABB, the Swiss-Swedish engineering group, and began developing railway software programs. He moved to South Africa for several years to help develop the country’s railway network. Upon returning to Switzerland in 2005, Weingartner redirected his professional career by adding a post-graduate diploma in photovoltaics. (“I’d been interested in this area since I was 18,” says Weingartner, who is now 49.)
He founded his own business for solar installations and employs five people. He calls it his “routine business.” He broke out of the routine in 2013, when he designed his solar table because he anticipated a change: “Ten years from now we won’t be seeing a lot of solar panels on small roofs anymore.” Although solar technology becomes ever cheaper, he says, installation costs will remain high while feed-in tariffs (i.e. compensation rates) will fall. For an individual, installing rooftop panels will become less and less viable. “The trend goes towards largescale installations and cost-efficient solar parks.”
Weingartner, who also builds solar panels for flower pots and side or coffee tables, sees a niche market for his solar furniture: “Ecology-minded people can do something for the environment without needing to obtain a building permit and having to spend 30,000 francs (US$32,476) on a solar installation.” So, is the table, which costs CHF 3,400, also a mis- sion statement? “Possibly,” Weingartner says, but he prefers to paint a broader picture. He uses phrases like “The sun is a democratic source of energy” or “The electric grid is today’s energy internet.” Anybody can feed into the grid and purchase from it, it has become a “free market.” While energy producers once pretty much cornered the market with their power plants, photovoltaics now gives many people the opportunity to become electricity suppliers. In short: for Weingartner, the solar table is the first step on his family’s path to “energy self-sufficiency.”
At least that’s the idea, his vision. The reality is different: Weingartner’s solar table is hardly a bestseller. He has sold some 30 pieces so far, but he needs to sell at least 300 to cover his expenses — high in the hundred thousands. It’s difficult to find his furniture on the Internet, let alone on social media. “There’s room for improvement,” he concedes. Nor have any of the big furniture chains, such as IKEA, Interio or Micasa, added his invention to their product lines. Weingartner knows why: “The margins are too low.” Micasa’s Service Centre told “Tages-Anzeiger”: “We take suggestions from customers on board and evaluate them on a supply-anddemand basis.”
This leaves the furniture and garden shows. Weekend after weekend Weingartner carts his solar furniture around Switzerland. The experience is not encouraging: “People stop, have a look, say ‘Wow, what a super idea’ and amble off.” So, is the willingness to invest in renewable energy overestimated or eroded by double standards? Weingartner wouldn’t put it that harshly, but says: “It’s what people do that counts, not what they say.”
India, the Dream Market
Florian Stahl teaches marketing at the University of Mannheim in Germany and knows a thing or two about launching innovative products.
“It takes time to market new ideas and inventions,” he says, because human beings are basically tradition-bound and it is difficult to sell them change. “The important thing here is communication. You have to convince people that the product is the same, but better.” Small companies find this difficult, he says, because they lack the resources for broad-based advertising campaigns. An alternative would be guerrilla marketing via social media or trying to sharpen the distribution process — either direct distribution to the end-seller (Stahl: “In this case rather difficult”) or via production licences (Stahl: “Probably the best solution”). Weingartner sees some merit in the licensing option since he considers himself more of an innovator than a furniture maker. “In future, we will also offer a do-it-yourself solar table.”
He has a longer-term vision as well: he wants to travel around India in ten years’ time and see lots of furniture connected to power points — “now that would be it!” For more information Website: http://energiemoebel.ch/
(Top) Markus Weingartner from Niederglatt, near Zurich, Switzerland, with his solar furniture. (Above) The energy flows directly into the private power grid of its owner.