The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Life's a 'Paternoster' (and then you fly)

Cyclic elevators may be fast and fun but their nonstop power drain seems like a step in the wrong direction

3 min read
Life's a 'Paternoster' (and then you fly)

"Don't leave the planet to the stupid." The corporate tag line from German solar module manufacturer Solon SE screams: 'We reject complacency' (not to mention gentility). It's a slap-in-the-face warning to expect the unexpected, so I was looking for something completely different when I visited Solon's one-year old Berlin headquarters on an architectural tour of Germany last week. I was not to be disappointed. What I found is probably the first cyclic elevator system installed anywhere in decades.

No pressing a button and waiting for a lift with this modern incarnation of a late-19th-C elevator design! In a cyclic elevator a string of passenger cars run by in a continuous loop. One simply steps into one of the open cars scrolling up or down through its adjacent elevator shafts and takes off. To your weary Canadian correspondent, presently immobilized in Berlin by an angry planet, the hassle-free transport offered by Solon's cyclic lift was a source of almost drunken pleasure.

Unfortunately, it may also be quite stupid (so to speak).

To Germans cyclic elevators are Paternosters, Latin for 'Our Father' -- a riff on the looping action of rosary beads. The lifts were a hit across Europe until the emergence of safety regulations in the 1970s. Authorities suddenly blanched at Paternoster accidents that crushed body parts, as well as the risk of fires spreading vertically through their open shafts. West Germany banned new Paternosters in 1974, and outrage at ongoing accidents has progressively winnowed the ranks of those left operating.

Solon won an exemption with a joint design from German elevator contractor Schoppe-Keil, engineering certification firm TÜV, and the Berlin State Office for Occupational Safety adding some high-tech safety features. For example, flashing green and red lights tell users when to step on and off. A visual detection system arrests the lift if one pokes even a pinkie past the threshold when the lights are flashing red.

It could be the start of something. Japanese heavy-engineering firm Hitachi is already talking up a Paternoster revival with its Circulating Multi-car Elevator System. Hitachi's system improves safety with an ingenious scheme for stopping individual cars while passengers hop on and off. And the firm claims that it could move more than twice as many office workers than a conventional elevator, shrinking the share of floor space in high buildings dedicated to lifts.

My question is: At what carbon price? Solon's impatient motto seems to embrace the urgency of scientists tracking global climate change, and its crystalline silicon solar panels offer an important alternative to fossil fuels. But where is the righteousness in its Paternoster's nonstop power drain, especially in a country which (like the US) burns coal to generate about half of its electricity?

I'm told that Germany's Federal Foreign Office in Berlin plan to remove their Paternosters as one means of reducing energy consumption.

Solon SE's provocative corporate logo

Solon spokeswoman Sylvia Ratzlaff says architects built the Paternoster into the company's stunning new green building at the insistence of Solon's CEO, who thought its constant circulation would be "power-saving" relative to the on-off action of its two conventional elevators. But she offered no stats to back that up. And isn't the real question why most employees can't climb the stairs in the 4-story structure, especially the sort of environmentally-conscious folk one expects to find at a solar manufacturer?

Perhaps these are just quibbles from a grumpy travel refugee, whose emotions rise and fall daily with the passing of each trans-Atlantic booking. Solon certainly has plenty more to worry about just now after the economic meltdown rocked its world, prompting Spain to withdraw solar subsidies and slashing Solon's sales to 320 million euros last year -- roughly a third what they booked in 2008. Its stock price has slumped to barely 5 euros from a high of 92 euros in 2007.

Germans have an expression for things like Solon and I that go up down. Wait for it... Yes, they call them Paternosters. As in this 2001 post to a German investor discussion site on stock price gyrations entitled "Solon's Paternoster Ride". In fact, a commenter of little faith questioned whether that word usage, in light of Solon's seemingly inexorable descent at the time into single-digit share pricing:

Who knows the difference between a Paternoster and Solon? The Paternoster goes up again sometime!

In hindsight it's tempting to think her comment 'stupid'. But that would be arrogant and ignorant, in the eyes of this interloping Paternoster. Almost as bad as using stupid in a corporate logo.

The Conversation (0)
This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

Keep Reading ↓Show less