From void into vision, from vision to mind, from mind into speech, from speech to the tribe, from the tribe into din.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Do It Yourself Solar: Austrian Self-Build Coops

In 1983, a couple of years after the second of the 1970s oil shocks and at a time when petroleum prices were relatively low, in a village near Graz, Austria, in the province of  Styria, a farmer and an engineer led a group of 32 people in building simple do it yourself solar heaters.  They said, "Our primary aim was to build a collector that was inexpensive and easy to build for every one of us. Having become aware of the 􏰜finiteness of natural resources, we also aimed at avoiding all material waste in constructing the collector. Other important aspects were the saving of energy, environmental protection, and community building. Everybody was expected to build their own collector in order to be sufficiently familiar with its function.”

By the end of 1984, two more self-building groups with more than 100 participants were needed to meet the local demand for such solar heaters.  By 1986, the do it yourself groups were producing more collector surface area than all the commercial suppliers in Austria.  In 1987, the first build-it-yourself guide was published and in 1988 the Association for Renewable Energy (AEE) was founded to institutionalize the group build, self build, do it yourself solar movement which now included about 50 groups and more than 1,000 participants.

By the end of 1998 there were 360,000 m2 of solar collector area and about 30,000 household solar hot water heating systems built by the do it yourselfers, out of 100,000 private household solar systems with 1.3 million m2 of plate collector surface in all of Austria.  For a decade and more, do it yourself, self-build groups dominated the Austrian solar industry and the model was exported to Switzerland, the Czech and Slovak Republics, and Slovenia.

From 1986 on, the self-build group leaders met monthly and improved the heater designs based upon practical feedback from users and builders.  They met with manufacturers, examined their products, and placed bulk orders to produce solar installations for their members and participants at very competitive prices.  The self-builders developed a new method to integrate solar collectors directly into the roof and expanded the solar hot water systems into space-heating or combination systems as well which became more cost-efficient and popular as building insulation and air infiltration standards rose in the 1990s.  It is estimated that 50% of all the new solar systems in Austria are now designed to serve both hot water and space heating needs, making it the leading market for solar combination systems today.

A do it yourself group starts with an introductory lecture and a trip to existing self-built solar systems. The construction groups work with the help of technical leaders to build 􏰜finished solar water systems. The average life of a construction group is usually three to four months.  The most remarkable characteristic of the members of the self-help group is that farmers and part-time farmers seem to be the largest adopters.

Although the solar companies originally saw self-build groups as amateur competition likely to botch the solar systems and installations, the success of the self-construction movement made solar more popular and certainly more visible.  Today, Austria has one of the highest penetrations of solar thermal energy systems in the world and Austrian solar collector producers are market leaders in the European market with one third of all solar systems sold there coming from their factories and workshops.

I first learned about the Austrian self-build cooperatives in the magnificent Let It Shine:  The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy by John Perlin (Novato, CA:  New World Library, 2013 ISBN 978-1-60868-132-7) and followed his footnotes to Michael Ornetzeder and Harald Rohracher's original work:
User-led innovations and participation processes: lessons from sustainable energy technologies 
Energy Policy 34 (2006) 138–150
Of solar collectors, wind power, and car sharing: Comparing and understanding successful cases of grassroots innovations

Back in the day, in the late 1970s, I started something called the Solar Work Group in the Boston area.  It was a group of people who met together once a month or so to build simple solar devices.  We built a couple of water heaters out of copper sheet and tubing, helped a friend fix up his attached solar greenhouse, and projects like that.  At about the same time, the anti-nuclear movement was warming up in Western MA anbd in Southern NH over the proposed Seabrook nuclear power plants .  The Solar Work Group rolled into the NE Coastal Power Show, a traveling energy show housed in a big, old White van, an old bread truck, that went from Maine to Washington DC, from Pennsylvania to Cape Cod over the next few years as an affinity group of the Clamshell Alliance, and presented energy efficiency, renewables, and nuclear energy information to an estimated 250,000 million people throughout the Northeast.  We had a big parabolic trough hot water heater on the roof and a detachable windmill we could place on top of a mast on the van.  The van itself had a secondary battery that was charged by the engine as we drove.  Solar cookers, hot water heaters, Stirling engines, buttons, bumperstickers, pamphlets and books, we had more information than any one person could absorb.

Also during that time period, another group of us formed the Urban Solar Energy Association which soon became the "fastest growing" solar group in the nation.  It also had monthly meetings and did solar barnraisings, building solar attics, greenhouses, windowbox solar collectors, solar hot air collectors, and solar water heaters.  The group went on for a number of years producing a do it yourself solar hot air heater manual, other technical reports, and a monthly newsletter.  Eventually, it merged with the MA Bay chapter of the Northeast Solar Energy Association to become the Boston Area Solar Energy Association ( which still has monthly meetings, lectures and presentations on the solar issues and technologies of today.

In the last few years, the Home Energy Efficiency Team ( here in Cambridge has been doing weatherization barnraisings and a number of other communities have begun to do the same.  In five years, HEET has organized more than 225 energy-upgrade work parties, assisted with more than 50 solar installations, and trained more than 3,500 volunteers in hands-on skills in saving energy.  There have been other weatherization and solar barnraising groups in Western MA, NH, ME, CA, and around the country.  Perhaps, if they institutionalized and organized themselves as well as the Austrian solar water heater group, they could multiply their impact.  

Austria's solar self-build movement has had a significant effect on that country's energy economics.  Can Ukraine do the same?  In November 2014, I saw a BBC article ( on Roman Zinchenko and Greencubator (;; @greencubator).  In that country, with its energy supply dependent upon Russia, Zinchenko has been organizing hackathons - "off-grid, solar-powered meetings of an assortment of programmers, engineers, and bloggers set 'in the middle of nowhere'".  These events give birth to businesses like, an app being tested by Deutsche Telekom which helps households reduce energy consumption and works with a sensor installed in the electrical meter, and eCoopTaxi which combines electric cars, a taxi service, and open energy co-operation as a business model.  Greencubator is also building an "energy torrent", a platform to encourage open-source energy tech designs and is about to "retrofit" an existing building in Kiev as a showcase for green initiatives, an "architectural hackathon."

Energy is power and power is politics.  All these examples are forms of Solar Swadeshi, the locally productive nature of solar energy, and can fit within the definitions of Gandhian economics, the formation of a non-violent economic system.

Solar Swadeshi

Personal Power Production:  Solar from Civil Defense to Swadeshi

Old Solar:  1980 Barnraised Solar Air Heater