Frankly … social  Thinking Constructively: Of Pedal Power and Solar Walls

Artists and dancers on stage
Concerts need a lot of electricity – can this electricity be produced sustainably? Photo (detail): Evgeny Gavrilov; © mauritius images /Alamy

Energy is still pretty abstract to most people. But the energy revolution is just around the corner. On a walk around town, Maximilian Buddenbohm has spotted the first modest harbingers of what lies ahead.

We’re going to talk about energy. Not only here, no, everywhere, and all of us. We’re going to talk about energy in a way we’ve never talked about it before, that much seems clear. It’s going to be the next big thing this winter, alongside Covid, the war and the climate. Energy is going to be more expensive than ever, and soon – in fact, it already is. The talking heads in the media all agree that we’re going to lose some of our prosperity. You and I, the whole country, every last one of us. There are warnings in the media, prophecies of doom on the front page: woe is us! 

But it’s only gradually dawning on us what this means in concrete terms. It starts with talking about room temperature: How do we feel about 19 degrees? Amazing how long we can go on about this subject, with historical digressions and, of course, plenty of personal particularities. In the oppressive heat of an open-plan office in mid-summer, we talk about ordering thermal underwear. And soon as we get home, we dig out our utility bills to speculate about what, how and where we could economize – though we’re still, mercifully, in the conditional mood. But not for long. 

No sign of it yet

Walking around the city, drenched in sweat – 33 degrees in the shade again in this extraordinary bone-dry drought-ridden summer – you think about the barely heated future. But you won’t be perspiring for.

I walk around the city too, trying to get my head around it: how this imminent crisis, which has yet to really be driven home, might change our everyday lives. There’s no sign of that yet. Even when I read in the paper that the first department stores are already switching off some of their escalators and outdoor lighting, that saunas are already being shuttered, pools no longer heated, air conditioners turned down, these are all mere news items to me, I’m not seeing or feeling any of that yet.

I’m going to a little music festival. The organizers have a particularly ambitious goal: everything there is supposed to be sustainable. The on-stage equipment is locally powered, the food locally sourced, of course, there’ll be composting toilets and no plastic plates or cups, and so on and so forth. Festivalgoers are asked to come by bicycle or U-Bahn.

Information panels

I get there early, no one’s there yet in this part of the park, so I have a look round. And I see what I see at every sustainable event: information panels. If an event has anything to do with the environment, consumption of resources, saving energy, etc., there’s always bound to be some organizer hell bent on putting up explanatory panels – I guess there’s no getting away from it. They tell you to dry your laundry on the line for a change and get out into the great outdoors to raise your awareness of nature. Panels like these immediately rub me the wrong way. Who could possibly need them? Is anyone seriously waiting for this information? Does anyone actually stand there reading it and, in a eureka moment, exclaim, “Aha, that’s it: a clothesline! I’ll give that a try.” I rather doubt it.

Pedal power 

But I come upon something more interesting further back, where four people on bicycles are pedalling away furiously without getting anywhere. The bikes are jacked up off the ground and don’t budge an inch: they’re generating electricity for the small stage right beside them. These four bicycles, I learn in passing, can produce enough power to supply quality sound for a sizeable open-air music festival, which I find impressive. The heavier the bass and the brighter and flashier the light show, the greater the resistance when pedalling, explains the panel – now that’s interesting matter for once. At any rate, the four sprightly cyclists are clearly getting a kick out of producing alternative energy by means of legwork, that’s plain to see. Every now and then one of them hops off and is promptly replaced by another volunteer: folks are happy to join in. And there’s nothing to explain, you just get on and pedal.  Pedal power is user-friendly: Anyone can do it, including kids, the elderly, even very old people, as I’ve noticed by now. One mother sets her toddler on the handlebars in front of her whilst pedalling, one guy cycles with such grim resolve you’d think he was competing in the Tour de France, whereas another guy goes about it at a deliberately leisurely pace whilst articulately explaining it all to his kid even wagging his finger. All this gets turned into electricity, music, sound and light.

I don’t know a thing about technology. I’d certainly have no clue whether you need four bikes here or more – or fewer. I find all of this fascinating. Four people, four pedal drives and so much noise and lighting. Real concert sound, can’t argue with that. Then I guess two bikes, maybe even just one, would provide enough pedal power for a singer-songwriter’s soft, mournful music. And I imagine a whole armada of these bicycle generators behind a big stage, hundreds of bikes pedalled by top-fit cyclists, with the band Rammstein performing out in front. Though maybe not quite as loudly as usual. I wonder if that would work.

Solar wall

In fact there is a bigger stage too, which is solar-powered. The solar panel is set on a slant right next to it and is roughly the size of the exterior wall of your average one-family house. No need for a larger surface and the sun has proved obliging today anyway, so there’s enough power to play the big stage – and a lot more loudly than the little one. We can do so much with so little, I think to myself as expertly as I can, having never given the slightest thought to matters of electricity generation in the past. So this set-up here is helpful for clueless folks like me: it helps us get our heads around some of this stuff. 

With a solar wall like this one, which actually isn’t enormous, we could do all sorts of stuff. Thousands of ideas immediately come to mind. Criss-crossing the city in my mind’s eye, I can imagine putting up these solar walls all over the place. Which makes me wonder why we haven’t been doing precisely that for a long time now. 

Food for constructive thought 

I don’t want to get political. But seeing examples like this could be food for constructive thought – it really is an eye-opener. Consider all the possibilities! This is an idea that’s been getting short shrift in the general debate these days. We hear warnings and worries like what if the sun isn’t shining, what about storing the energy, what about the necessary permission. And pedal power – oh please, give us a break. Be serious. OK.

In the U-Bahn heading home afterwards, I watch a little film on my phone that’s been shared to my timeline. It presents a bizarre washing machine that looks more like a hip piece of sports equipment. It’s actually a pedal-powered washing machine – what an absurd coincidence. Now if I had a machine like that at home, even my sons would volunteer to do the washing for once.

So we need to think – and keep thinking – constructively. That’s probably going to be the main challenge we’ll be facing in the months ahead.

“Frankly …”

On an alternating basis each week, our “Frankly ...” column series is written by Maximilian Buddenbohm, Susi Bumms, Sineb El Masrar and Şeyda Kurt. In “Frankly ... social”, Maximilian Buddenbohm reports on the big picture – society as a whole – and on its smallest units: family, friendships, relationships.