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Green energy

Ludovic Deblois' Column - The Solar Revolution in Buildings

The homes and buildings in which we live, work, and spend our time are undergoing a revolution. The buildings of tomorrow will bear little resemblance to those of today. Buildings are at the heart of a three-phase energy revolution: self-consumption, thermal renovation, and positive energy. Let’s take a look at the first phase: self-consumption.

With the rise of consumer-producers or “prosumers,” the line between “consumption” and “production” is blurring. The digital revolution and spread of the Internet have seen a huge recent spike in the number of people well versed in collaborative consumption. It’s turning our entire economy on its head.

Now it’s possible to own a car and rent it out to perfect strangers via a car-sharing platform or use the same platform to rent your neighbor’s car if you unexpectedly need an extra set of wheels. Sharing platforms like these are popping up all over, but are most prevalent in five sectors: finance, lodging, transportation, personal services, and business services. Ultimately we may all wind up as producers and consumers of everyday services. It’s a cultural shift, but the economic impact is massive. In Europe, PwC estimates the market at €28 billion (2015), with a potential of €570 billion by 2025.

Energy Sharing?

Until now, this sharing economy groundswell has more or less bypassed the energy sector. How could people share major utilities such power plants or nuclear reactors? It doesn’t make sense. But with the development of renewable energies and leaner, decentralized production methods, all that has changed. And people’s imagination will take care of the rest. Now it’s possible to get in on the energy-sharing adventure by owning a “piece” of a windfarm or photovoltaic power plant by investing in collective energy projects as a prosumer or “energy citizen.” According to forecasts by the firm Delft, by 2050, 64 million European households could belong to energy collectives.

The development of renewable energy crowdfunding platforms (such as TrillionFund or Abundance in the United Kingdom, Green Centale in the Netherlands, Village Power in the United States, Econeers in Germany, and Lendosphere in France) adds weight to this trend. Germany is leading the charge; according to Clean Energy Wire, already in 2012, 46% of its renewable energy facilities were owned directly or indirectly by private individuals!

The fact remains that once electrons are produced, they “like” to stay close to home. There’s no guarantee the windfarm you invested your savings in will power your electric facility forever. And that isn’t a big deal in itself. But there’s something new. With the focus shifting to ultra-local power generation, things are starting to radically change and there’s a whole generation of electricity prosumers ready to run with it.

United Kingdom Aims for 10 Million Photovoltaic Roofs

What will it mean? It will mean covering the roofs of thousands of farm and logistical buildings, offices, and homes with solar panels, a very large number of which will be photovoltaic (PV). For example, Imperial College says the United Kingdom could potentially equip 10 million homes with PV panel roofs by 2020, compared to 500,000 homes today. That would be enough to cover about 6% of the country’s electricity needs on average and as much as 40% on sunny summer days.

There have long been regulations requiring individuals with these kinds of panels to redirect all solar electricity produced back into the conventional power grid. This helps diversify the energy mix and decarbonize energy, which is a good thing in itself. But self-consumption opens up a new chapter for energy: that of electricity prosumers. And it has the potential to be revolutionary.

Self-consumption vs. Self-sufficiency

What’s the difference? For individuals, businesses, or administrations, self-sufficiency means meeting their own electricity needs at the source by using PV panels installed on their own roofs or facades. In short, your panels produce the electricity you use. To be clear, self-consumption does not necessarily equal self-sufficiency. With self-consumption, you might use all or only some of the energy you produce locally. To be fully self-sufficient, however, individuals or organizations must be able to produce enough of their own energy to cover all their energy needs.

As for self-consumption, PV provides part — and sometimes all — of the energy needed during the day. Any surplus is stored locally or redirected to the power grid. The rest of the time you’d need to use either a conventional power source or tap into the energy that’s been stored. As the International Energy Agency (IEA) explains, “self-consumption can be described as the local use of PV electricity in order to reduce the buying of electricity from other producers. In practice, self-consumption ratios can vary from a few percent to a theoretical maximum of 100%, depending on the PV system size and the local load profile.”

Jeremy Rifkin’s Dream

Self-consumption is not a new idea. It has been floated by a number of visionaries, including social theorist Jeremy Rifkin. In The Third Industrial Revolution, Rifkin describes a power grid that would distribute electricity produced locally from renewable sources. In his dream of an “Internet of Energy,” he takes the idea even further, imagining a world where everyone has “connected” hydrogen cars equipped with fuel-cell batteries to store energy that can be used to power the car or, once the car is parked, our homes.

With changes in legislation and the development of new technology, this dream is within reach. Many countries (Germany, Australia, France, the Netherlands, etc.) have updated their regulations with that in mind. Once again, Germany is leading the way, with 100,000 of its citizens already considered “self-consumers.” In France, the movement has been underway for a few years. In the Netherlands, the cooperative Qurrent and its over 100,000 customers have Qbox, which optimizes local production and consumption of renewable electricity.

Brooklyn Microgrid

In the United States, Brooklyn Microgrid, backed by startup LO3Energy, is rolling out its first version of a local power production/consumption grid. It was originally designed as a way to maintain power during extreme weather events when the conventional power grid is not enough. But the experiment is ready to expand.

But let’s face it: self-sufficiency is still a long way off. Even though people have access to simpler, more affordable technology, we still need two things. On the production side, we need large surface areas. On the consumption side, we need high demand in the immediate vicinity. Both are critical. A number of new or newly renovated shopping centers are now incorporating photovoltaics, marking the first step towards self-consumption.

Shopping Center Shoots for 99% Self-consumption

In France, Grand Pineuilh, a shopping center in Gironde, is aiming for 570 MWh of solar electricity production a year and a self-consumption rate of 99%. In cities, logistical warehouses can cover their roofs in PV panels to meet their own electricity needs as well as those of neighboring offices and houses. In rural areas, large farm buildings can provide enough power for a small village.

Self-consumption opens the door to innovations unimaginable up to now, but it needs to stay rooted in the quest for energy efficiency. New tools are needed. And businesses everywhere, including startups, are hard at work creating them. In France, In Sun We Trust offers a tool where anyone can gauge the solar potential of a roof in just a few clicks; the company is planning to partner with banks to offer integrated solutions. Germany’s SolarWatt is another very active player. And as we mentioned earlier, there’s also Qurrent in the Netherlands and Brooklyn Microgrid in the U.S.

History in the Making

The move to decentralized, renewable energy and self-consumption represents a whole new world of solutions that were unthinkable just a few years ago. All things considered, we are witnessing the birth of a major phenomenon, akin to the Internet in the early 90s, which started with rudimentary tools in the hands of pioneers with a powerful vision. By the mid-90s, the revolution had begun, first in the United States (backed by President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore), and across the globe.

Get ready for a new chapter in the history of energy.