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A renowned columnist, speaker and the author of a bestselling book on CSR, Per Grankvist is a thought leader on how the new rise of civic engagement as well as sustainability is changing the way business, government and NGOs operate and collaborate. Read more.

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Sunday
Sep092012

Under the curse of knowledge

A panorama of stupidity over Mexico City.Painters have flocked to Paris for centuries to try to capture that special light that the city has become known for. Descending towards Charles de Gaulle on a sunny morning, I peek out of the window and can verify that the light really makes the view over the French capital something extraordinary.

But looking down on all those rooftops, the view also strikes me as a panorama of stupidity. Why aren't more real estate owners trying to harness the power included in that light? From the moment I understood the potential of solar power to provide emission free, locally produced, cost effective energy the curse of that knowledge has haunted me. I might sound grumpy, but I’m no longer able to enjoy the sight of a city from above without feeling a sting of frustration thinking of the fact that most of the energy from the sun is left unharnessed.

Of course, Paris isn’t more stupid than most cities. The view of New York as seen from the upper floors of the Bank of America Tower, Mexico City from the top of the Torre Major or Stockholm from the Scandic Victoria Tower is equally disappointing.

Over the past decade, the cost of installing solar power has plummeted while technological advances has raised the maximum energy output from a each solar cell. As a result, power can now be generated from the sun even in countries where the sunrays are not as powerful as along the equator. That’s why Germany was able to set a new world record in May when almost 50 percent of the energy used came from solar. More than 22GW were fed into the grid each hour, equal to 20 nuclear power stations on full capacity.

Even though the record was set on weekend when factories weren’t running, in the weeks leading up to the record, energy from solar made up a fifth of Germanys total power usage. This should silence any critic that still says that renewable energy isn’t reliable or that it can not provide enough capacity to power industrial nations. Under chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany has been eager to demonstrate the power of solar. A few years ago, the country implemented a system with fixed feed-in tariffs that helped boost the renewable power industry.

Approaching Frankfurt from the air, the result is visible. Many of the buildings adjacent to the airport have covered their roofs with solar cells, making the sight something extraordinary.

Adding solar on rooftops where now one can see them is one thing, but nowadays, they can even be integrated on the side of buildings without compromising on aesthetics. The new Opera in Oslo has solar cells integrated in its large glass sections of the façades. And companies like Ruukki have demonstrated that cheap, effective solar even be invisibly integrated into the facades of buildings

So why aren’t more real estate owners embracing solar? The arguments are strong: it would make them less reliant on the grid, less sensitive to fluctuating energy prices and pay for itself in just a few years. Also, with lots of new financing solutions available, the need for an upfront investment is smaller than ever. And with all that’s been written on the topic over the past few years it’s hard to understand how someone can ignore this?

Maybe the greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge, as Stephen Hawking has suggested. To get more roofs covered, it is thus necessary for solar power companies to take one step backward to stop selling products and first get customers understand why they need them and the potential that is waiting to be tapped.

To shatter others illusions of already knowing what is needed to know on solar, we have to acknowledge our own curse of knowledge on the benefits of solar. The inability to enjoy an extraordinary view over a city without finding it looking stupid might be a good start.

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