|Solar Gardens Institute Founder Joy Hughes|
What would a civilization of sustainable
prosperity look like? We would see a stable population, and a stable economy.
Economic growth would be measured not in terms of more stuff, but of greater
efficiency and higher quality of life. We would want to minimize energy and
material flows in a sustainable world. Solar panels are perfect examples of
sustainable technology, because they do not require fuel. We would want the
solar panels to last a long time – generations, if possible.
The same would apply to all our society would use; buildings, vehicles, and all
items of material culture. Durability would be one of the most important
features considered in every purchasing decision. Charging 50% more for
something that lasted two times longer would be a smart marketing decision.
This is the opposite of our current culture of planned obsolescence. Thus,
durable goods and infrastructure would become more capital-intensive. The
question of social organization and sustainable world depends on how the
infrastructure will be financed, and who will retain ownership in the long run.
I am envisioning a just society in which everyone would be guaranteed the
basics of life such as basic housing, food, healthcare, education, and
participation in a democracy as human rights. I would also include the
ownership of clean renewable sources of energy, sufficient power the basic
needs of the human life. There would be some degree of inequality, as there is
in any human society. A just society
would minimize inequality, and be more of a meritocracy than a society of
hereditary inequality. People could compete for better housing locations,
objects of art and beauty, and for acclaim.
In such a future, everyone would own
their own solar panels, their own living spaces, and their own shares in
community-supported farms. These basics could be passed down from generation to
generation. That is why I say: “everyone will have their own solar panel the
way they have a belly button.” This is a
world of cooperatives, where each person will own a stake in the systems in
which he or she participates.
What must be avoided is a situation
where the few - the proverbial 1% - own the sources of energy for generation
after generation. I call this potential dystopia the “Empire of the Sun”.
Today, a few companies own almost all the fossil fuel reserves in the world,
and command political power to match. But sooner or later, those reserves will
be gone. In fact, in order to combat ocean acidification and global warming,
most of those reserves will have to stay in the ground. So we know the fossil
fuel companies’ reign is temporary. But that is not the case with solar power -
the sun is not going to run out of fuel for billions of years. Most of us would
likely prefer the kind of future for each of us owns our own source of power to
such an empire.
In the imperial scenario, solar plants
are in some ways similar the centralized fossil fuel plants of today -
sprawling solar arrays located far from energy customers, harming desert
ecosystems, and connected with giant transmission lines. What is a better way?
Customer-owned rooftop systems and community shared solar gardens can be
located close to power users. On-site storage systems and microgrids can
provide backup power, resilience in the face of extreme weather events.
One way we can get to the world of distributed ownership is through low
interest loan guarantees for renters and homeowners. These loans can be
guaranteed by the fact that people are very likely to pay their electric bills
and not have their power cut off. This is similar to what happens when utility
builds a power plant. They take out bonds to cover the capital cost of building
the infrastructure, backed by the utility bills of all their customers. If the
panels are located in a community solar garden, the loan can be further guaranteed
by the fact that the panels can be repossessed with just a few keystrokes. Once
the loan is paid off, the customer pays only for the operations and maintenance
costs of the panels, and the cost of maintaining the grid between the solar
garden and the customer. Power becomes much cheaper, and the utility becomes a
common carrier for the distribution of electricity. If the utility is a
customer-owned cooperative, the customers own the grid as well.
A customer with extra space can also
become a host for a solar garden. Ideally, anyone who has room for a few extra
panels should receive electricity credits as a hosting fee. Because these
panels are owned by someone else, if the property is sold, the new owner would
be required to keep them on site or move them to a new location. This doesn't
seem too much of a problem, as the panels are income-producing assets. Under
today’s system, the devil is in the details. Zoning rules, property tax law,
and mortgage policy will have to take solar hosting into account. It's
important to streamline this process, as all of these factors can result in
additional soft costs. This also challenges utility control of electricity
generation, and requires new models for rate design. High PV penetration
requires changes to grid operation and design, and may necessitate energy
We can begin with the end in mind, developing
business structures and regulations that allow community solar to be built
rapidly, with the long-term goal of universal solar ownership. Let’s steer away from the Empire of the Sun,
and create a self-sufficient Solar Age.