Interview with a Pioneer:
“Why are there still cars that run on petrol and people who still heat their homes with oil?”
A cold wind travels through the city whilst the street lights reflect off the river. It’ a quiet, dark evening just like you would expect at half three in the morning. I find myself standing in the middle of a bridge. Where am I and how did I get here?
A light appears, it comes closer and closer, an elegant figure seems to be holding a lamp as he comes closer I can see his face illuminated, and I make out that he is wearing old-fashioned clothing.
The stranger wears a black winter coat and smiles mischievously at me. “Well, Leo, are you all alone here? Come with me, we can cross the bridge and go inside where it’s warmer. I need to speak to you” the older man says to me. I decide to follow him across the river, and then the tram lines; maybe he knows how I got here. But how does he know my name?
We walk in quiet alongside each other for a while, each lost in our own thoughts. We start walking towards a large building, it’s evident that many extensions have been added on and it’s somehow familiar. I think I know this building, but I have no idea how I got here.
“Welcome to the German museum” the stranger says as he pulls out a bunch of keys and opens a dark door. The light blinds me and I notice the heat flowing out of the doorway. We go inside and stand in the lobby, there are two large staircases to my right and left, with a modern information desk in the middle.
I take a closer look at the older man, and stumble. I’ve seen his face in many photographs before, and I figure it out. He’s Oskar von Miller, the pioneer of the electrification in Germany and the founder of this museum. I think to myself, “this can’t be, he passed away in 1934” but he’s in front of me running up the narrow stairs into a small office. He grabs an old leather chair and pushes it on over in my direction.
“Have a seat, Leo. I wanted to stop by and ask you some questions that have been on my mind for a long time now. You can call me Oskar, that’s how it is nowadays, right?”. I struggle to compose myself, but what an honor to have the opportunity to speak with such an expert!
I will never get this opportunity again, no matter how crazy this is.
I answer, “Good evening, Mr. von Miller, I’m Leonhard Birnbaum, an engineer just like yourself. But I’m guessing you already know this. Please call me Leo and ask me whatever you want. I hope I have the answers.”
“I know you work for E.ON, Leo, the company obviously has its roots in Bayernwerk, which I founded almost a hundred years ago and it still exists today.”
“Yes, Oskar, you’re right, the Bayernwerk still has the same name as it did in the past and it still has the same purpose of supplying large areas of Bavaria with electricity.”
“Leo, I heard that you’re now supplying power to every household, and you’re transmitting it as a direct current over long distances without losing any of it. So why are people still heating their homes with oil and gas? And why are they still driving petrol cars when you can do this all with electricity because E.ON is everywhere! It’s fantastic, I couldn’t imagine this during my time and yet it’s not being used to its full potential. Why is that the case?”
“It must be really fascinating for an engineer from the early century, but I don’t think I need to tell you that it’s not always easy to implement straight away. It takes a lot of will and perseverance to get it into practice. We need to take the people along with us and convince them of these great offers.”
“You can say that again. I don’t know how long it took for me to be allowed to start on the German museum building!”
“Yeah, now every year the museum has over 1.5 million visitors, it’s very well-known and popular. Incidentally, Oskar, electric cars and heating with electricity will be accepted when people see the benefit, whether that be financially or in terms of comfort.”
“But isn’t it already the case that electricity isn’t a luxury anymore? I wanted it like that back in my time.”
“That’s correct, nowadays every house has electricity, but even though it’s not a luxury, it’s also not for free.”
“Why not, Leo? Electricity brings about prosperity and wealth, at least that was the case during my time. Nowadays you don’t only have water but you have wind and sun, and all three of these things don’t cost a thing.”
“The machinery does cost though, Oskar. Just like the museum you founded. And the networks also cost money, because they are widely distributed, longer than before and much more modern. In the meantime, you can take in the electricity from many small systems, distribute them and even compensate for any variations. The wind and sun are weather dependent.”
“That’s what I call a challenge. How will you solve this?”
“We are making our electricity grids smart. For example, we are using transformers that can self-compensate for voltage fluctuations. And they ensure that, in the future, energy which is generated locally can also be used locally.”
“You’re going to make the networks abundant?”
“No, the networks definitely won’t be made abundant. It will just be made much more continuous with connections in every direction. We’re talking about the internet of energy, we are making a comparison to a technical revolution that has already revolutionized people’s lives. The energy networks will do this in a few years.”
“Back to my question Leo: why is electricity not everywhere? Why are there still cars that run on petrol and people who heat their homes with oil?”
“Because these developments always take time. You always need to convince the people time and time again that electricity can be transported over long distances. But we are on the right path. In Europe, we aren’t just putting a greater emphasis on the environment and climate protection, but also on making electricity from renewable energy cheaper. This will make renewable energy a true competitor to coal and oil. Just give us a little more time, Oskar.”
“Okay, Leo, I will do that. I’ll make sure we meet again in a few years. I want to thank you for this conversation. It will be interesting to see how far energy grids and production will evolve. You are on the right path anyway. Will you see yourself out?”
As he speaks, Oskar gets up, shakes my hand and turns to leave. The door creaks and quietly closes. I sit there, take one last look around me and still can’t believe that I just spoke to the person who invented the electricity grid in Germany, and who has also been dead for almost 85 years.
A lot of other sounds begin to mix in with the silence, and it slowly gets bright. The city wakes up and I begin to hear noises around me, first softly and increasingly louder. And suddenly I find myself in my own bed again, at home. Was that all just a dream? A vision? But honestly, you can’t just make this up…..
Oskar von Miller
Oskar von Miller (7th May 1855 Munich-9th of April 1934 Munich) was a German civil engineer. He is most known as an electrical engineer, hydropower pioneer and founder of the German museum. From 1918 to 1924 he was a project manager for the construction of what was then the largest storage power plant in the world, the Walchensee Hydroelectric Power Station. He also promoted the development of an entire Bavarian electricity supply. From this initiative stemmed the company, Bayernwerk. Oskar von Miller published numerous book that today are the standard of work for the energy industry. Numerous streets and places in different German cities are named after him.