An unexpected discovery

Sometimes coincidence is the best detective. And it was just such a coincidence that led Hansjörg Steinhorst of the Liebherr Archive on the trail of an almost forgotten invention. It all began in autumn 2019 with a tour of the plant in Biberach an der Riss, where he met the engineer and local historian Johannes Angele. While the two history-enthusiasts walked through the production facilities, they had a lively conversation about historical collectors’ items. “I have something at home, too,” Johannes Angele suddenly said. “A Liebherr solar fridge. It’s been in my company's warehouse for years.” Hansjörg Steinhorst could hardly believe what he heard. Although he had heard of this refrigerator, it had been missing for almost three decades. Could this be it?

A few days later, Johannes Angele sent two photos of his treasure to the archive man: a KT 1580 Solar, which was originally packed in a yellowed cardboard box on a wooden pallet. “When I saw the pictures, I was absolutely thrilled,” says Hansjörg Steinhorst. “I wanted to find out more and immediately started researching.” He had so many questions that needed answering: Why had the photovoltaic refrigerator been built? Who had invented it? And why had it turned up in the possession of a local historian in Ochsenhausen 25 years later?

Innovation in the times of the ozone hole

The early 1990s were a time of upheaval for Wilfried King, Herbert Gerner and Matthias Wiest, the development team at the Liebherr-Hausgeräte GmbH in Ochsenhausen (Germany). In 1989, the United Nations had agreed on a ban on chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) with the Montreal Protocol, which was to come into force in 1995. “The entire cooling industry worked flat out to develop fridges and freezers without CFC refrigerants,” recalls Matthias Wiest, who is now head of the Cooling Division. Like everyone else in the industry, the Liebherr developers were working on the future of cooling in their research laboratory between wooden walls, cables and measuring rooms. Wilfried King, Head of Basic Technological Development at the time, remembers it well: “Those were exciting, but also difficult times. CFCs were on everyone’s lips because of their contribution to the greenhouse effect and the continuous enlargement of the ozone hole. You could really feel that you were in the middle of a generational change.”

It happened everywhere: the media reported almost daily on the environmental damage caused by greenhouse gases such as CFCs and FCs (fluorocarbons). Greenpeace drew attention to environmental protection with sensational campaigns. And people took to the streets for the climate. Climate change had become a reality. Finally, in 1993, the three developers' dream became true. For the first time, Liebherr added a CFC- and FC-free refrigerator with the insulation of a freezer to its portfolio: their KT 1580 model. For Liebherr, it was the turning point towards consistent energy-saving thinking.

CFCs, FCs and the greenhouse effect

The greenhouse gases CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) and FC (fluorocarbon) were used as foam blowing agents and refrigerants in refrigerators and freezers. They were known to promote global warming. CFCs in particular played a central role in the destruction of the ozone layer and the formation of the so-called ozone hole. Starting with the KT 1580, Liebherr switched to CFC- and FC-free refrigerators from 1993.

Solar power for the energy revolution

“For its time, the KT 1580 was a pioneer in terms of energy-saving and, in 1994, was awarded the rating ‘very good’ by the leading German consumer safety group Stiftung Warentest,” recalls Herbert Gegner, now Head of Appliance Electronics. But the development team wanted more, because the electricity used for the refrigerator still came from the socket, thus promoting the indirect greenhouse effect. After careful consideration, the developers came up with the solution: solar energy. “I had already studied photovoltaics during my studies. In the meantime, the technology had made great strides and you didn’t need many solar panels to power a fridge anymore. Meaning, in terms of efficiency, costs, availability and performance, things became really interesting,” explains Herbert Gerner. Thus, the developers began to upgrade their CFC- and FC-free refrigerator with solar power. “The KT 1580 was predestined for the conversion to solar. It was our technology project. With it, we wanted to position Liebherr as an innovation driver,” says Wilfried King. And it worked. They had thought of everything. You could even buy the refrigerator as a modular system, individually or with a solar panel and battery. With it, the appliance could cool for a week without sunlight. “And we looked even further ahead,” recalls Wilfried King. “Our idea was to bring our solar fridge to small villages in Africa that weren’t connected to the power grid, for example, to cool medications in rural hospitals.” Their dream would come true in unexpected ways.

  • At the first Climate Protection Trade Fair in Berlin, 1995
    As one of 250 exhibitors, Liebherr presented its KT 1580 Solar with a specially designed booth in Berlin from 4 - 7 April 1995. The exhibition took place as part of the symposium "Success Cases of Urban Climate Protection in Europe".

    At the first Climate Protection Trade Fair in Berlin, 1995

    As one of 250 exhibitors, Liebherr presented its KT 1580 Solar with a specially designed booth in Berlin from 4 - 7 April 1995. The exhibition took place as part of the symposium "Success Cases of Urban Climate Protection in Europe".

  • The KT 1580-Solar flyer from 1994
    "Liebherr is the first company to develop a refrigerator that is completely free of CFCs and FCs and that is powered by the rays of the sun. The Liebherr KT 1580 Solar is thus the very first refrigerator that doesn’t harm the ozone layer (ODP Ozone Depletion Potential =0) and doesn’t contribute to the greenhouse effect (GWP Greenhouse Warming Potential =0). What is more, the KT 1580 Solar is more spacious than conventional 12 V refrigerators, it’s suitable for use in the tropics, it utilises the famous Liebherr refrigeration technology and because it’s battery-powered it can be used absolutely anywhere."

    The KT 1580-Solar flyer from 1994

    "Liebherr is the first company to develop a refrigerator that is completely free of CFCs and FCs and that is powered by the rays of the sun. The Liebherr KT 1580 Solar is thus the very first refrigerator that doesn’t harm the ozone layer (ODP Ozone Depletion Potential =0) and doesn’t contribute to the greenhouse effect (GWP Greenhouse Warming Potential =0). What is more, the KT 1580 Solar is more spacious than conventional 12 V refrigerators, it’s suitable for use in the tropics, it utilises the famous Liebherr refrigeration technology and because it’s battery-powered it can be used absolutely anywhere."

  • In the 1990s developers' lab
    In this development laboratory, the KT 1580 and the KT 1580 Solar were also screwed and tinkered with. The picture is from the early 2000s, a few years later a new, ultra-modern development centre was built.

    In the 1990s developers' lab

    In this development laboratory, the KT 1580 and the KT 1580 Solar were also screwed and tinkered with. The picture is from the early 2000s, a few years later a new, ultra-modern development centre was built.

  • Finds from the Liebherr Archive
    Hansjörg Steinhorst's research unveiled many insights into working at Liebherr-Hausgeräte in the early 1990s.

    Finds from the Liebherr Archive

    Hansjörg Steinhorst's research unveiled many insights into working at Liebherr-Hausgeräte in the early 1990s.

  • Fridge production over 30 years ago
    The old production facilities of Liebherr Hausgeräte in Ochsenhausen, towards the end of the 1980s.

    Fridge production over 30 years ago

    The old production facilities of Liebherr Hausgeräte in Ochsenhausen, towards the end of the 1980s.

  • Aerial view of Liebherr-Hausgeräte GmbH 1990s
    The company premises at the time when the KT 1580 and KT 1580 Solar were being developed.

    Aerial view of Liebherr-Hausgeräte GmbH 1990s

    The company premises at the time when the KT 1580 and KT 1580 Solar were being developed.

  • Aerial view of Liebherr-Hausgeräte GmbH 2019
    Since the time of the KT 1580 Solar, the company premises have been regularly expanded. Most recently, the Liebherr-Hausgeräte Customer Centre was added to the front left of the picture.

    Aerial view of Liebherr-Hausgeräte GmbH 2019

    Since the time of the KT 1580 Solar, the company premises have been regularly expanded. Most recently, the Liebherr-Hausgeräte Customer Centre was added to the front left of the picture.

  • When ideas become "trees"

    1995 finally became the year of the KT 1580 Solar. In April, Liebherr dedicated an entire booth at the first Climate Protection Trade Fair in Berlin to the model, which had been awarded the then brand new European energy label “A” – “top saver”. In August, the fridge was even mentioned in one of Germany’s most renowned newspapers, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “With 144 litres, this washing-machine-sized cabinet has more volume than previous 12-volt appliances. It is suitable for use in the tropics and can be operated independently of the mains supply,” the newspaper headlined. Despite all the attention, only around 50 units were produced. “We were very proud of our invention. But as it is with new technologies, sometimes you’re simply ahead of your time,” says Matthias Wiest looking back. Wilfried King agrees: “Nothing is big right away. You never have certainty that a development will last. A new idea is like a small plant. It can grow and then quickly wither. Or it can grow slowly, leaf by leaf, until it becomes a tree."

    In the end, the idea behind the KT 1580 did turn into a tree – even without photovoltaics. It is still considered the prototype of Liebherr’s energy-saving household appliances today.

    Africa after all

    Only one question remains: How did solar refrigerator reappear almost three decades later in the warehouse of local historian Johannes Angele? The answer is as simple as it is exciting. In 1998, after the KT 1580 Solar had almost disappeared from the product portfolio, Johannes Angele contacted Liebherr in Ochsenhausen on behalf of the friends’ association ‘Förderverein Piela Bilanga e.V.’ which supports charitable projects in Burkina Faso (Africa). The association had already equipped the school of the village Piela with photovoltaic panels in 1991 and wanted to support the inhabitants with further solar technology. Now, they were looking for refrigerators that could be powered by solar energy. They were lucky and some models of the solar fridge were still available. The association purchased two. One of them would go on a long journey.

    “At that time, our association supported Souleymane Sow, a young local who, with his technical knowledge, had made a big impression on us and the German sisters of the protestant mission, while he helped build the solar modules for Piela. We decided to collect money for him to enable him to train as a technician in Germany,” says Johannes Angele. "After my successful graduation I went back to Burkina Faso and founded a company for solar and computer technology," says Souleymane Sow. “One year later," adds Johannes Angele, proud of his friend's achievement, "we sent him one of the two solar fridges. By the way, it is still in operation today. It serves as a training example on how to create cold from the sun."

    Back to where it all began

    The last remaining refrigerator from Johannes Angele’s warehouse fell into oblivion. Hansjörg Steinhorst from the Liebherr Archive ultimately took care of it personally. In return for a donation to the Piela Bilanga Förderverein, he brought the piece of Liebherr history back to Ochsenhausen. There, in the very development laboratory in which it was once created and under the watchful eyes of its inventors Wilfried King and Herbert Gerner, it was reconnected to its solar panel after 22 years.

    Today, as part of the collection of historic appliances, the KT 1580 Solar is a reminder of the times when the Liebherr household appliances became energy-saving professionals.

  • Homecoming
    Developer Wilfried King unpacks the KT 1580 Solar in the new development centre of Liebherr-Hausgeräte.

    Homecoming

    Developer Wilfried King unpacks the KT 1580 Solar in the new development centre of Liebherr-Hausgeräte.

  • A first check
    Even after 22 years, the refrigerator still looks like new

    A first check

    Even after 22 years, the refrigerator still looks like new

  • Now attach the solar panel
    Together with Oliver Bopp and Herbert Schäfer from the Development Centre, Wilfried King is reinstalling the original solar panel on the roof of the old Climate Protection Trade Fair booth.

    Now attach the solar panel

    Together with Oliver Bopp and Herbert Schäfer from the Development Centre, Wilfried King is reinstalling the original solar panel on the roof of the old Climate Protection Trade Fair booth.

  • Proud inventors
    Fully assembled, the developers Herbert Gerner and Wilfried King can present their invention from 1994.

    Proud inventors

    Fully assembled, the developers Herbert Gerner and Wilfried King can present their invention from 1994.

  • Everything solar
    The KT 1580 Solar is back in Ochsenhausen.

    Everything solar

    The KT 1580 Solar is back in Ochsenhausen.

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