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As Germany struggles in energy crisis, more turn to solar to help power homes

Karolina Attspodina, a Ukrainian-born tech entrepreneur who launched the startup We Do Solar in Berlin, with one of her company's solar panels. Attspodina's work is part of nationwide push to get Germans to use less energy and lessen dependence on Russian oil.
Marlena Waldthausen for NPR
Karolina Attspodina, a Ukrainian-born tech entrepreneur who launched the startup We Do Solar in Berlin, with one of her company's solar panels. Attspodina's work is part of nationwide push to get Germans to use less energy and lessen dependence on Russian oil.

There is no major industrialized country in the world more dependent on Russian energy than Germany.

Natural gas, mostly from Russia, is used to power the country's manufacturing sector, and it heats nearly half of the country's households.

To Berlin-based entrepreneur Karolina Attspodina, it is an especially troubling reality, as the European energy crisis revealed how much Germany needs Russia's oil and gas exports to simply function.

"I'm pretty frustrated," said Attspodina, 34, who was born in Ukraine. "And it not just me. A lot of people are. How could we get to this stage that we're so reliant on somebody else, especially Russia?"

Last year, Attspodina co-founded a company to empower Germans to rely a bit less on Russian energy: She sells solar panels that can be installed on apartment balconies and garages.

Here's how it works: The solar panels collect energy from the sun, which is then sent to a device, known as a microinverter, that is plugged into a power socket. The energy from the panels then becomes the initial source of energy for the household, ahead of power from the grid.

Karolina Attspodina displays the microinverter attached to We Care Solar panels. The microinverter is plugged into a power socket, and the energy from the panels then becomes the initial source of energy for the household, ahead of power from the grid.
/ Marlena Waldthausen for NPR
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Marlena Waldthausen for NPR
Karolina Attspodina displays the microinverter attached to We Do Solar panels. The microinverter is plugged into a power socket, and the energy from the panels then becomes the initial source of energy for the household, ahead of power from the grid.

By the most optimistic measure, her solar panels can save residents up to 25% on their utility bills.

When Putin's forces invaded Ukraine earlier this year, her crusade against Germany's reliance on Russian oil and gas become even more personal.

"I can see my people dying over at home. I still have family and friends there," Attspodina said.

Other Germans, meanwhile, realized that the invasion meant energy prices at home would soon rise.

The war spiked sales of her solar panels by 70%, she said.

"I wish it never happened in this way, but everyone really understood in a new way that we needed to be more independent in terms of energy," she said.

She is now racing to keep up. Even though regulations limit the amount of power her solar panels can generate, she has a backlog of 3,000 orders she is now trying to fill.

"This is a way for you to actually reduce your energy bill, but also reduce CO2 and help our climate crisis and obviously help the fact that we are reliant on the Russian gas," she said.

Dimming lights countrywide to save energy

Across Germany, the government is taking its own steps to try to reduce energy consumption: Dimming lights in public places; cranking down the heating of public pools; turning off water fountains — some cities are even considering turning off traffic lights in lightly populated areas.

A violinist plays in front of the darkened Altes Palais (The Old Palace) with its facade illumination turned off on July 27 in Berlin. Berlin's Senate Department for the Environment ordered that the illumination of buildings and landmarks across the city be switched off in order to save energy.
Omer Messinger / Getty Images
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Getty Images
A violinist plays in front of the darkened Altes Palais (The Old Palace) with its facade illumination turned off on July 27 in Berlin. Berlin's Senate Department for the Environment ordered that the illumination of buildings and landmarks across the city be switched off in order to save energy.

Russia has been gradually sending less gas to Europe in response to Western sanctions. The critical Nord Stream 1 pipeline now sends just 20% of what it is capable of to Europe — some fear that Russia will turn off the taps completely this winter.

That would make a painful energy crunch even worse, said Fabian Ronningen, a senior analyst at Rystad Energy.

"The energy crisis will last as long as prices are very high and Germany remains reliant on Russian gas, which will not be a short-term thing," he said.

We Do Solar's sales bump, according to Ronningen, dovetails with residential solar panel purchases surging across Germany in response to the energy crisis.

Solar energy now accounts for around 9% of the electricity Germany consumes. Ronningen said residents installing more solar modules on balconies and rooftops is a welcome development, but there is no easy fix to solve the crisis.

"Consumers have to deal with these prices in the winter and also for the coming year," he said.

Solar is a boon for some, out of reach for others

In Berlin, one of Attspodina's customer, Leo von Bismarck, 40, a tech entrepreneur, recently installed the solar panels at his parents' place in the city's posh Mitte neighborhood.

Looking at the eight black panels attached to the outside of the balcony, von Bismarck said they were appealing because they double as a privacy screen. He is happy about the cost savings too.

A We Do Solar solar panel in use, hanging from a balcony (upper left) in Berlin on Aug. 18.
/ Marlena Waldthausen for NPR
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Marlena Waldthausen for NPR
A We Do Solar solar panel in use, hanging from a balcony (upper left) in Berlin on Aug. 18.

"Some people are just paralyzed by the urge to do something, but at the same time not knowing how to do it," he said. "And this is really plug and play, to be honest. It's really as simple as that."

Easy for a von Bismarck say. For many Germans, at 1,300 euros, the cost of buying the cheapest set of solar modules is simply out of reach.

Like for Lydia Dietsch, a graphic designer in Berlin who said there is no way she could afford them.

At the same time, her utility bill recently delivered a nasty sticker shock. She lives with her partner and a roommate.

"Prices already increased from like 91 Euros per month to 410 per month," she said.

With solar panels out of reach and her energy bill soaring, Dietsch is taking shorter showers. Sometimes cold showers.

"I'm trying to avoid cooking with the gas oven and use other things instead," she added. "We have a grill."

Bracing for the coming winter, Dietsch said she might have no choice but to shiver her way through it.

"I'm afraid of winter. I don't know what will happen," she said. "We will just be in the cold rooms, I guess."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.