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 China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY CHRIS­TIAN ZERCHER

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/

Tages-Anzeiger

(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.

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