Monday, February 10, 2014

Empire of the Sun - Opinion by Joy Hughes

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 storage.

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.

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