A Review of Sun Above the Horizon: Meteoric Rise of the Solar Industry

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Originally Published in the ECOreport

Figure 25.6 Inside the Academy for continuing education, Herne, near Gelsenkirchen. - Sun Above the Horizon © Peter F. Varadi
Inside the Academy for continuing education, Herne, near Gelsenkirchen. – Sun Above the Horizon © Peter F. Varadi

Peter Varadi is one of the few people who could be said to personify the solar industry. He and his partner, Joseph Lindmayer, helped develop this technology for space, and founded the World’s first terrestrial solar company in 1973.

Solarex was the worlds largest, and possibly the only profitable, solar company at the time when they sold out, a decade later. That did not end Varadi’s involvement in solar, as he has continued to be at the center of developments, as a consultant to organizations like the European Commission, The World Bank and National Renewable Energy Laboratory. His recently published book, Sun Above the Horizon: Meteoric Rise of the Solar Industry, is an insider’s view of what has transpired since Bell laboratories discovered that silicon was a incredible conductor of electricity in 1953.

Peter F. Varadi
Peter F. Varadi

Vanguard I was launched five years later, and its radio transmitter carried two batteries. The conventional battery was depleted after 20 days, but its solar partner was never depleted. The satellite ceased to be operational after six years, but solar’s value in space was established.

Two Hungarian refugees, Joseph Lindmayer and Peter Varadi, were hired to head the satellite program’s (Comsat’s) physics and chemistry departments in 1968.

The “terrestrial” solar story can be traced back to a New Year’s celebration they held.

“I do not know after how many glasses of excellent French champagne during the first hours of 1973 we agreed that if we left the crystallized bureaucracy of Hungary marching toward communism and we came here to the USA, the center of capitalism, we should leave our jobs to form a company and become capitalists,” Varadi wrote (p 9).

Personal anecdotes are one of the strengths of Varadi’s book. They range from business decisions to more personal sketches, and many are humorous.

Figure 25.1 Solarex Building , Frederick MD. USA – 1982 The World’s first and at that time the largest (200 MW) rooftop PV system – Sun Above the Horizon © Peter F. Varadi
Solarex Building , Frederick MD. USA – 1982 World’s first and at that time the largest (200 kW) rooftop PV system – Sun Above the Horizon © Peter F. Varadi

One identifies with his secretary, Barbara, who rushed home to put on her best dress, after being told she was going to be on television. They filmed her typing, at an electric typewriter operated with electricity produced from solar energy, for an hour. Watching the news that night, she found this segment restricted to a brief clip in which only her hands were visible.

Varadi concludes the anecdote, “The next day when she came to work she was very upset.”

I love the fact one of his chapters is entitled ”Cook Book: how to make solar cells and modules.” That is exactly what it is, a recipe for baking a solar module in your kitchen! But as I do not intend to bake a solar module, this is one of the segments I skipped over.

Varadi’s book is half the size of War and Peace (only 528 pages). I found Tolstoy’s book so interesting that I read it three or four times, but am not certain I actually read all of it. (That was decades ago.) Some of the philosophical segments were repetitive and I skipped them. Similarly, I am not interested in every detail of Varadi’s book, but taken as a whole, I find this is a must-read for anyone interested in solar energy. There is information in this book that you will not easily find elsewhere.

Sun Above the Horizon: Meteoric Rise of the Solar Industry is full of surprises.

This passage comes from his description of the oil industry’s involvement in the 1970/1980‘s (p 253):

“The oil industry is generally considered the Big Bad Wolf for PV. I disagree with this, because it was shown, the oil companies money, which no other investor did, for the establishment of the first terrestrial solar cell and module factories…. Without big oil money, these companies would not have been able to establish their PV production.”

It would be a mistake to sum this book as historic, because it reaches forward into the future.

The following is gleaned from one of the chapters on Germany (pp. 472-473):

“Sometime ago in an email correspondence, Wolfgang Palz predicted that the next major advance of PV would be the electric independence of homes and stores from the utility. This may surprise you, but it can be stated this prediction became reality in the spring of 2013..”

As Varadi points out, German utilities are encouraging rooftop owners to purchase battery storage systems so they can become more independent of the grid (and less disruptive). This transforms their present problem into an opportunity:

“ … the largest German utility, Rheinisch-Westfälisches Elektrizitätswerk AG (RWE), realized there is a huge market for storage systems in Germany for the already existing over a million homes and farms equipped with PV systems on their roof …”

Figure 42.1 The RWE advertisement reproduced and translated – Sun Above the Horizon © Peter F. Varadi

Want a glimpse into where the struggle between utilities and rooftop solar is going? Read Sun Above the Horizon: Meteoric Rise of the Solar Industry.

Do you want to know how China came to be such a dominant force in the solar world? Two entire chapters in the book are devoted to this topic.

I would recommend the print version, which is published by Pan Stanford Publishing and available through Amazon.com, but you can also obtain it online.

Peter Varadi was interviewed on the radio version of the ECOreport, which will be broadcast through Cortes Community radio Wednesday, July 16, from 10:00 – 10:30 am Pacific time and also posted to the Audio section of the ECOreport website (http://www.theecoreport.com/category/media-2/radio/)

A half an hour interview is no substitute for the book. Buy a copy and read it.  (www.amazon.com or www.crcpress.com).

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Roy L Hales

is the President of Cortes Community Radio , CKTZ 89.5 FM, where he has hosted a half hour program since 2014, and editor of the Cortes Currents (formerly the ECOreport), a website dedicated to exploring how our lifestyle choices and technologies affect the West Coast of British Columbia. He is a research junkie who has written over 2,000 articles since he was first published in 1982. Roy lives on Cortes Island, BC, Canada.

Roy L Hales has 441 posts and counting. See all posts by Roy L Hales