Claudia Patricolo talks to Dr Zoltan Kiss, an 86-year-old inventor and entrepreneur, whose latest venture, Holistic Solar, wants to change the way we think about and use solar energy, making it accessible to just about everyone.
In “The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared” Swedish novelist Jonas Jonasson tried, in an as amusing way as possible, to describe everything that happened in the 20th century through the surreal main character Allan Karlsson. This hundred-year-old man was ever-present behind the scenes at many of the key events of the 20th century, a friend of President Harry Truman, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and other leading historical figures. Meeting Dr Zoltan Kiss is a bit like speaking to Allan Karlsson. Except Dr Kiss is real.
Now 86, Dr Kiss has indeed played an active role at the most important events in our history and just like Jonasson’s character is a strong and clever man, always a step ahead and sometimes a little bit crazy.
A Village Boy
The first thing I noticed when I stepped into his house were the bluish solar panels surrounding the garden. “Interesting,” I thought. From the comfort of his home, he told me one story after another, all of which have their beginning in Hungary, in 1932, and all of which involve a peasant, a brilliant student and an inventor: Dr Kiss embodies all these things, and then some more.
He really has come a long way. He was not always interested in science. He was actually first attracted to religion, and wanted to become a priest. “My religious ambitions started and ended with the new and sophisticated town priest,” he says, blushing a little as he remembers a very attractive woman who was dating the man of God.
It was the early 1940s and Hungary was on the verge of joining the Axis powers following the outbreak of the second world war. Young Zoltan lived in a small village in the southern part of the country, a place which is today remembered as the only region that the Turks never managed to occupy.
“My family embodied the pure Hungarian tradition: Catholic and peasants,” he recalls, while petting his dog, a fierce and docile Bouvier des Flandres. But a peasant’s modesty and humbleness are what he needed to look at life and achieve success and happiness.
“The Hungarian government was trying to bring poor people from the countryside to the cities. So I took part in a competition and won a scholarship that allowed me to go to high school.” His temper was not always in line with the school’s principles, however.
“At the end of the war, the Russians arrived. They stole our horses, they occupied our house. I remember my grandmother giving me a loaf of bread and shouting at me ‘Don’t you dare come back until you have found a horse or a wagon.'”
It was a hard time in Hungary. Political upheaval was everywhere, especially in schools, and young Kiss couldn’t stay away from such turbulence. So he was expelled from school. God’s fault, we might say.
“I was arguing with some communist guys about the existence of God. They were insisting on his non-existence but I had all the proof to show them that they were wrong. So I ended up in jail.” To be precise, he ended up in jail four times and in different countries: Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, and Austria again.
“I always managed to escape. I remember crossing the border into Austria. There were 20 people with me and among them was Katalin Karadi.” Not many people are familiar with her name these days, but back then Mrs Karadi was a diva and a sex-symbol with a Hollywood-like image. She has since become best known for having rescued large numbers of Jews during the war and was awarded Righteous Among the Nations status.
At 18, Kiss moved to Canada. “I chose Canada by accident. At that time many people were asking embassies to grant them permits to enter their countries. So I contacted the US embassy, the Canadian and the Australian. The Canadians answered first. I could have ended up in Australia and who knows what might have happened,” he says, pointing at all the certificates and awards hanging on the walls.
In Canada, Kiss worked for farmers, was a woodcutter and harvested tobacco plants. Only in 1952 did he decide to enrol at the University of Toronto, attending the Faculty of Physics and Engineering. And the poor peasant from a small village in Hungary obtained a Master’s Degree in spectroscopy and then a PhD studying hydrogen, the core of his current activities.
He travelled a lot: Switzerland, England, Japan. “I remember my Japan period with pleasure,” he says smiling. “Japanese people are always a step ahead of the rest and I sold them some new technologies that could have revolutionised the tech world.” While winking at me, he showed me a first prototype of what today is known as ‘i-Swatch.’ Mr Kiss was one of the pioneers of LCD technology.
Finally, he became an entrepreneur. “Nobody should pay a fee for the sun. Everybody in the world should be able to have their own source of energy at a lower cost than what they pay today,” says Dr Kiss, explaining where the idea of his company comes from.
We are all consciously aware that the Earth’s resources are not endless. We are bombarded with non-stop advertising about how to behave responsibly and environmentally-friendly. But as I am writing this, I notice that we have passed Earth Overshoot Day, the day on which humans begin to accumulate a debt to the Earth, having used more resources that year than can be regenerated by the planet itself. And in 2017 Overshoot Day came earlier than ever. Dr Kiss felt this need many years ago when renewable energies were uncharted waters.
“Solar energy can be considered the greatest industry of this century, with over two million people employed in the field, many more than those who are working in the IT sector,” says Dr Kiss, today the founder of a solar energy company, Holistic Solar.
“I chose the name ‘Holistic Solar’ because I am a generalist. It is the first company that takes a holistic approach to the industry, taking into account not only economics but also social considerations.”
Dr Kiss supports the argument that solar energy has so far been collected in the wrong way. With the current process of transformation through batteries, we are wasting vast amounts of energy. Neither do batteries last forever: we have to replace them often. Electricity grids are also in danger from cyber terrorism. All these considerations combined to give Dr Kiss the idea of creating a simpler machine, accessible to everyone.
“Everyone has a house. And if you don’t have a house, you are probably living in an apartment. Everyone can produce their own energy,” he says.
So Dr Kiss invented the Rebox (short for Renewable Energy Box). This tiny machine generates solar electricity and stores it for use when the sun does not shine, thanks to nickel-iron batteries and locally generated hydrogen. It is portable, costs less than grid electricity and does not waste electrons. It can be installed in houses, apartments, streets, residential and commercial areas, manufacturing companies, farms, cars and just about anywhere else.
“My biggest dream is to witness the creation of a community which lives off its own energy,” says Dr Kiss. “A community of people who share what they have, who are richer because they are not paying useless fees and who, at the same time, are helping the planet.”