Over the last few years, people have asked me several times why electric car manufacturers aren’t putting solar panels on their cars to charge the battery. It sounds like a logical thing to do, isn’t it? I always argued there might be two good reasons for car builders to shy away from this idea. First of all the surface area for solar cells on a car is limited and their orientation not ideal, hence a low energy production could be expected. Secondly, solar panels are not cheap. Pardon me, they were not cheap. Nowadays they are. And hence… things have changed lately.
Energy is the driver behind our modern society. If we want to move towards a sustainable society, energy in the form of clean heating, transport, and electricity provision are key.
While Trump performed a piece of first-class alternative facts-stuffed theatre in Washington to announce he retreats the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, industry leaders from around the world discussed the latest innovations in solar technology at the Intersolar Europe summit in Munich last week. It is there that Chinese inverter* manufacturer Sungrow announced exciting plans for a new floating solar farm on a lake in the South of China. With an installed capacity of 140 MegaWatt, it will be the largest floating solar farm in the world, a record currently held by another farm of Sungrow that was opened earlier this year.
Elon Musk has been in the spotlight a number of times on my blog now, and once again he succeeded in creating a good portion of buzz in the cleantech world which I cannot let go unnoticed. Yesterday the Silicon Valley entrepreneur announced that Tesla is now taking online orders worldwide for their latest disruptive technology: the solar roof. Seen by Elon as the third leg of the stool of a sustainable energy future, next to Tesla’s Powerwall and electric car, first installations in the US follow later this year, while worldwide rollout begins in 2018.
Solar roof can be ordered for almost any country. Deployment this year in the US and overseas next year.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 10, 2017
Last week, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) released its 2017 statistics on renewable energy technologies. Should we be excited about a 60-page long document filled with numbers?! Ooooh yes, even if you are not a nerd. IRENA meticulously listed all renewable energy generation plants in the world, categorized them according to technology, and kept track of their total installed capacity over the last decade. The statistics show clearer than ever that renewable electricity generation is growing worldwide. Have a look at the graphs I made for you below.
Coincidence or not? Soon after I gave a presentation on my vision for the European Renewable Energy targets for 2030, the European Commission announced its energy winter package last Wednesday. In total, eight new or revised pieces of legislation were proposed. Ranging from new energy efficiency goals as the centerpiece of Europe’s energy transition -for sure the most renewing part of the package- , over adaptations to the internal energy market design, to an update of the Renewable Energy Directive, which dates back from 2009.
In the light of my previous article, I thought it would be good to investigate the Renewable Energy Directive update in more detail. To save you from the boring legislative texts the European Commission provides its citizens with (trust me, I’ve read them), I summarized the most important points for you in the infographic below. You’re welcome!
Two weeks ago, I presented my vision on the European renewable energy targets for 2030 at the European Utility Week in Barcelona. More in particular, I outlined the three key action points which I believe need to be addressed to achieve a sustainable energy transition. With my presentation I won the Young! Initiate talent award 2016, which guarantees me a ticket for next year’s conference. You can now read the abstract in which I outline my vision right here in my blog. Just continue reading =) I hope you enjoy it and I am more than happy to hear and discuss your thoughts!
2020: 20% renewable energy. 2030: 27%. 2050: 80%. Just a matter of cranking up the number of wind turbines and rooftop solar panels? I didn’t think so. Smarter people than me will explain you in much detail what enormous challenges an increase from 20% to 27% means for our grids. But honestly, I am more than confident that those same smart people will come up with solutions in terms of storage technologies, balancing systems, thermal grids, and demand-side management apps. Bluntly put, the technology side of the transition towards a new energy future for Europe is the last of my concerns.
What does trouble me is, well, basically all the rest. To start with, the 27% has been defined on a European wide level and has not been translated into national targets, as is the case for the 2020 goal. In itself this is a good thing, since those targets are based on GDP and diplomacy, rather than the renewable energy potential of a country. In the end, some member states are simply more lucky than others when it comes to renewable energy sources. On the other hand, the EU members will still have to decide how they are jointly going to achieve the 27% target. In one way or another, the efforts will need to be divided.
Since the Commission has not come up with a plan so far, allow me to make my own suggestion. Why not ask all countries to exploit a fixed percentage of their total pool of renewable resources? Once the wind, solar, hydro, geothermal and tidal energy potentials have been estimated for each member state, it shouldn’t be too difficult to calculate that number, such that we end up at 27% for the whole Energy Union.
Such system would not only make more sense, it would also create a shift in the mind-set of the population, which in some regions got rather sick of Europe’s unstoppable waves of (expensive) targets. Investing to crank up renewable energy generation to yet another level imposed by the EU, is probably being perceived as a difficult and expensive homework. On the other hand, if one starts thinking from the whole renewable energy resource pool one has available in its country, Europe is de facto asking to only exploit a limited part of it. This might be perceived as something more easily reachable and hopefully motivates to do better than what is strictly necessary.
Besides a proper effort sharing mechanism, I also believe we need a unified support scheme. The current plethora of subsidies, feed-in tariffs, market premiums etc makes it difficult for companies to build a business case that can be applied over the whole European continent. In addition, national schemes are prone to politic fluctuations, while a European wide scheme would ensure long-term stability. This is an important condition for companies to invest in R&D and innovation.
But it should, of course, not stop there. A truly new energy future for Europe is one where the power is back in the hands of the people. Literally. Wasn’t it one of the original objectives of Europe’s Climate and Energy package to provide more affordable energy to its citizens? Too bad that for many countries the energy prices actually have gone up, partially due to the high burden of the support schemes.
If you ask me, (part of) the answer lies in energy democracy. Via citizen participation in decision making and renewable energy cooperatives, the common man will be involved again in the important issue of energy provision. It can bring people closer to the energy topic, but also to one another. In the last years, many successful cooperatives have sprouted up around the continent. Energy is the driver of our modern society and it would be a pity if its future will be decided solely by a select group of big cooperations and engineers, no matter how smart they are.
To allow smaller players and bottom-up organisations to become active in the energy sector, one pan-European and centrally regulated grid is needed that takes away barriers for new entrants. The electricity grid should become something one can connect to as easily as registering at your municipal library, as a way of speaking. A lower administrative and regulatory burden allows more competition and distributed renewable energy resources will highly benefit from this new playfield.
These three things -a fair distribution of efforts between the member states, a unified support system, and regulation that embraces citizen participation- are the key to a new energy future for Europe. It is about so much more than just the number 27. Not just a renewable future, but a truly sustainable one, technically, economically and socially. That’s the future I dream of; that’s the future I want to work for.