The Solar Self-Building Movement

Every year the International Energy Agency publishes a detailed report on worldwide usage of solar thermal energy. The last one from 2019 is based on data from 2017. Countries are ranked by their installed capacity: Collectors’ thermal heating power under standard operating conditions is linked to their area: 0.7 kWth (kilo Watt thermal) per square meter.

China is the country leading the ranking of absolute numbers (MWth). The top countries in terms of total installations per number of inhabitants were: 1) Barbados, 2) Cyprus, and … 3) Austria!

Three years before, Austria was even in the lead, before Cyprus and Israel:

Source: Solar Heat Worldwide. Markets and Contribution to the Energy Supply 2014.

Austria seems like an unlikely winner – crossed by the 49th parallel north, on the same latitude as the boundary between the USA and Canada.

There was an early solar energy boom in the late 1970s – as in many countries in the world, and it can be traced back to the 1973 oil crisis. This cannot fully explain why a middle European country would adopt solar technology faster than sunnier countries. Maybe there is an optimum latitude: It needs to be cold enough so that people are really motivated to reduce costs for heating, but it needs to be still sunny enough so that solar gains make a difference.

In History of Heat Pumps, engineering Prof. Martin Zogg answered a similar question for his home country: Why did Switzerland become a leading innovator in the development of heat pumps? Zogg attributes it to fuel shortages during both world wars and to Switzerland’s isolation – surrounded by countries at war – combined with top skilled energy engineers. Scarcity spawned innovation.

In Austria’ history of solar (thermal) energy, a unique self-building movement stands out – the boom was started by DIY enthusiasts. In pre-internet times two tech savvy tinkerers did their own research and built solar thermal systems themselves, because commercial solar technology was expensive. This first DIY workshop was held in Graz in 1979. Ideas spread via word of mouth – reports of happy owners of solar systems motivated others. These tinkerers joined forces with a group of farmers with talent for improvisation and technical know-how.

The design of the solar system was gradually improved in meetings of what was to become the first “official” group of self-builders in 1984. These groups used their purchasing power to buy components at attractive prices and provided systems’ sizing and tutorials. The design of solar collectors became more and more standardized: Collectors were assembled by a “community” and home owners installed them themselves. More than once the authors of the research report point out the importance of the traditional support among neighbors. It seems that the solar movement in Austria was able to balance the creativity of DIY mavericks with the need to provide reliable systems. The tinkerers became the ones leading later professionalization efforts.

Was this movement due to a group of people with the right mindset, accidentally being in the right place at the right time? One may speculate about the connection with other historical events of this period: The construction of Austria’s first nuclear power plant had been completed. But then a referendum was held in 1978, and voters had to decide if the plant should actually be put into operation. 50.47%  decided against. Austria has plenty of renewable hydro power, but at that time its image was not yet “green”: The successful prevention of the construction of Danube hydropower plant Hainburg in 1984 has become part of the founding myth of Austria’s Green Party. In contrast to these large projects planned by “sinister” corporations or government, solar thermal energy might have represented a rather simple renewable energy technology accessible to everyone.


References: Solar Heat Worldwide. Global Market Development and Trends in 2018 | Detailed Market Figures 2017 Solar Heat Worldwide. Markets and Contribution to the Energy Supply 2014. Recommendation: Converting solar thermal collector area into installed capacity (m2 to kWth) Marktentwicklung und Zukunftsperspektivender Solarthermie in Österreich. Figure on p.2: In Österreich jährlich installierte Flachkollektor-Fläche 1975-2011. Installed glazed collector area per year in Austria 1975-2011, showing the effects of the 1970s oil crisis. Zogg, Martin. History of Heat Pumps Swiss Contribution sand International Milestones (2008). The intro of Section 5.2 – Heat Pumps for Heating, Swiss Pioneering Work – covers political and economical contraints that triggered innovation.  Selbstbau von thermischen Solaranlagen als Wegbereiter der solarthermischen Nutzung in der Slowakei – Eine Wirtschaftlichkeitsanalyse, 2005. This article covers Slovakia’s solar thermal energy potential, based on Austria’s history. Section 1.2, starting p.11 Selbstbau von Solaranlagen in Österreich – DIY solar thermal installations in Austria. Website of Nuclear power plant Zwentendorf, incl. a brief historical account. Kuchler, Andreas (2015) Die Entwicklung der österreichischen Wasserkraft nach Zwentendorf und Hainburg. Dissertation, Universität Wien. PhD thesis on the history of hydro power in Austria after Zwentendorf and Hainburg. Zwentendorf was a completed, but never operational nuclear power plant, Hainburg was a planned Danube hydro power plant prevented from being built by environmentalists .

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Very interesting, Ekle. What about the cost of electricity – is it high in Austria compared to other European countries? There is a growing “prepper” movement in the US aided by COVID-19. That may promote local efforts for solar.

    1. elkement says:

      Hi Gary, nice to hear from you :-) Austria is in the middle of the ranking of EU countries by cost of electricity – our costs are two third of the costs of the leading countries. But I am not sure to what extent direct electric heating had been used in the region where the movement started – where heating with wood is more popular.

      1. Elke, would you think that the ranking of motives to be:
        1. Being “Green” – environmentally sensitive
        2. Independent DIY spirit
        3. Better Heating
        4. “Prepping” and getting off the grid
        5. Better heating, and last
        6. Cost savings?

        Or some other rank order.

        1. elkement says:

          The motives of people changed a lot over time! For example, one of the research reports mentioned that for the very first adopters – the tech-savvy farmers and the like – costs were most important. I am not sure about running costs of energy, seems they were angry about the costs of off-the-shelf solar thermal systems.

          Only when the movement reached the suburbans of a larger city, “being green” became more important. DIY spirit was the more important, the the more technology was in its infancy.

          Prepping / off the grid – in the sense understood today – was maybe not that important, because the solar thermal pioneers would not have changed their dependence on electricity. Back then, photovoltaic panels was hardly available or very expensive – so very different from today … when “off-the-grid” typically means generating your own electrical power!

          Availability of energy has always been rather high here (e.g. only a few minutes of outage per customer of utilities) – so if somebody wanted to be independent if was rather not for “prepping for a disaster” or supply chain issue.

          I think in this special case there was also a “community spirit”, so maybe a motive like “I want to be part of that” – as the movements was a perfect combination of independent tinkerers (in a still unregulated field) but they were much more organized and professional than “lone mavericks”.

          I don’t dare to turn that into a simple ranking! :-)

          1. Very interesting – combining community spirit and individual tinkering… Thanks!

  2. Geography is a key to many things. The Netherlands is in the top trading nations of this world; it is also one of the smallest countries. The explanation is geographical : few natural resources created a need to trade. Being in the sea created the opportunity.

    Mountainous countries create communities that are isolated because of the physical hurdle of the passes between the valleys. Many of these communities are closed and self-reliant. The combination of a need for self-provision and an understanding of communities might well explain Austria’s self-building movement.

    1. elkement says:

      The self-building movement started (and also kept being located mainly in) a region far from the mountains! We are a small country, but still have topographically very different regions ;-) Austria’s East, bordering the Great Hungarian Plain, is totally flat, less than 200m above sea level. Constraints in the Eastern regions have been rather been the iron curtain, and combined with this the awareness of being dependent on fossil fuel from Eastern countries. The Alpine regions were the ones pioneering pumped-storage hydro plants.

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