In 1987, a world congress on solar energy took place in Hamburg. The message of the experts at that time: After more than 100 years of corresponding research achievements, it was clear that solar energy was a clean alternative to conventional power generation and could be used on a much larger scale than was usual at that time. That was the initial spark and the reason why Thomas Rudolph started working for a Hamburg engineer with a small shop for solar energy in 1988 after his studies.
Rudolph worked there for eight years. Originally he was selling various products, mostly homemade with solar cells, in the shop in Gärtnerstraße. Seamen from faraway countries came and used their wages to buy small solar modules for their families in places without electricity. Soon the shop became known not only to sailors but also to allotment gardeners, yachters and motorhome owners.
In 1996, Thomas Rudolph thought that more people should be able to enjoy solar technology and that selling directly to end customers was not the best way. His idea: where people usually buy their accessories for motorhomes or sailboats, solar technology must also be offered. The managing director of the small engineering firm preferred to stick to his last and let Rudolph move on after eight years of apprenticeship.
With his friend and colleague Hans Jacobs, Thomas Rudolph founded SOLARA in 1996 when he was just 32 years old. The motivation was enormous. Having just become a father and thinking of a future worth living in. With environmentally friendly and infinite solar power for the children of this world. “When my children are grown up, solar systems should be normal on sailboats, mobile homes and even on houses,” was already his idea back then.
Hans Jacobs (l.) and Thomas Rudolph 1996
Thanks to a business start-up initiative in Hamburg (HEI), corresponding state loans and guarantees and the Deutsche Bank, which also believed in the future of solar energy, a new company was launched despite the very modest equity of the two founders. SOLARA was born and already had the first employee, Dipl.-Ing. Frank Heise. Who would also be managing partner of SOLARA in 2014 in Hamburg.
After the first attempts came out of the garage and living room from Thomas Rudolph, it was clear that a real office with a warehouse, and as usual small shop had to be found in Hamburg. Quickly a suitable domicile was found in Hamburg Eimsbüttel. The second employee, Bozena Frejlich, has just been hired. To this day, she is the faithful soul in order processing and well-known to all customers worldwide.
The founders initially concentrated almost exclusively on the boat and motor home market in Germany. Own fair stand at all relevant exhibitions and intensive contacts with potential resellers quickly led to the planned success. “We have overcome the skepticism about solar energy and ignorance of their great advantages by emphasizing the benefits and not the technology,” says Thomas Rudolph. Not watts, volts and amps were the focus, but information about which electrical equipment you can operate with solar and how long. The simple representation of the average day (Wh / d) of a solar module was born. Thus it was now easy to bring the electricity demand of the consumers in relation to the solar yield. The specialist was able to quickly identify the customer’s needs and then recommend the appropriate solar module. This was the breakthrough in sales. According to the motto “Make it simple”. Today you would probably say “plug and play”.
First SOLARA M series for sailing boats and sea signs
Of course the right products were decisive. Even though the resellers were able to demonstrate the benefits of the SOLARA solar system for sailboats or camper vans, it was above all the message that the solar module is a suitable product. So the SOLARA specialist had to prove to the skeptical customer again and again that sea water or hail is not a problem for solar modules.
SOLARA already had its own development ideas, special requirements and the highest quality requirements were requested of the producers. Surely this is also an important part of the now twenty-year successful existence. Also because camper drivers and sailors exchange their experiences and recommend good products.
Already one year after the founding, the management decided to enter international business, especially in other European countries. All information and user manuals had to be translated into English. English-language sales talks, travelling abroad and trade fairs were now the new challenges. Frank Heise: “At that time still without Euro, with passport and extensive export processing, partly even with customs. Today hardly imaginable in a unified European market. ”
1999: Employees (e.g. bottom row 4th from left Bozena Frejlich, back row 4th from left Frank Heise) and owner (left Thomas Rudolph, back row 5th from left Hans Jacobs) of SOLARA on a company outing to a production site in France.
The premises were quickly too small and already in 1999 the next move to Hamburg Altona had to be made. In the meantime more than 12 employees were employed at SOLARA, and sales had risen to several million DM.
The high requirements and specifications for the different applications with SOLARA solar modules made it necessary to build up their own production. With the support of his suppliers and the graduate physicist Ralf Hennings from Wismar, who had already had a few years of experience, the SOLARA Sonnenstromfabrik started production in 2001.
2001: Thomas Rudolph (l.) And Ralf Hennigs, Managing Director SOLARA Sonnenstromfabrik during the inspection of the solar cells and connections before laminating
From then on the development continued in huge steps. The double-digit million mark was quickly broken, and SOLARA was one of the first major players in Europe. With the start of the “100,000 roofing program”, the funding initiative of the Federal Government in 1999, solar modules for grid systems were also manufactured. In 2004, a trade magazine drew SOLARA not only as the best brand of the year, but also supplied the solar modules for the world’s largest roof-mounted system for BMW in Dingolfing, Bavaria.
The production was constantly expanded and finalized in 2008 in a building with 20,000 square meters and a capacity of several hundred megawatts and over 200 employees in Wismar, on the coast of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.
To cope with this rapid growth, SOLARA had grouped with other companies in 2006 and merged into CentroSolar AG under the listed CentroSolar Group AG. This was a surely wise decision to continue to operate and expand the business model with production and wholesale competitively in the rapidly growing demand and financially strong competitors.
Like many companies, the Centrosolar 2013 had also fallen into the vortex of the decline in the solar industry for grid systems in Germany. In this situation, the SOLARA dissolved again from the Centrosolar Group. With its off-grid applications such as sailing boats and mobile homes but also for extraordinary electrification in Africa, for expeditions and much more, SOLARA continues to be very successful. With a completely revised product portfolio, the company has returned to its headquarters in Hamburg Altona. With the three solar-driven and solar-inspired engineers Frank Heise, Mirko Held and Walter Grauerholz, as managing directors, SOLARA is well positioned for the future.
SOLARA solar modules still come from the Sonnenstromfabrik in Wismar. The factory can now look back on over 15 years of experience.
Frank Heise: “Innovations, quality and durability are still important to us, and after 25 years I know how to do that. More than 20 years of warranty have been a matter of course for SOLARA since its foundation.”
In this still young industry, SOLARA is a company with a history and is characterised by consistency despite past turbulence.
The vision of SOLARA founder Thomas Rudolph 25 years ago: “When my children grow up, solar systems on sailboats, mobile homes and even houses should be normal” has, as we know today, not only become reality but has been surpassed with well over a million solar systems on house roofs in Germany alone and far more on sailboats and mobile homes worldwide. Today, operators of solar systems can produce a kilowatt-hour for less than 10 cents in Germany. This is far cheaper than the around 30 cents that customers often have to pay energy companies today.