As you all know COP 21 climate agreement is a step change in the progress towards renewable energy. In short, this is my reading of the agreement's key conclusions:
I think this initiative raises two questions at this stage. The first and most obvious one will be how each country will follow on the Paris agreement. The hard part of implementing this directive will be to translate it into a regulation that works. Unfortunately, environmental regulation is complex to implement and it might cause unforeseen consequences, as in the case of the European Carbon Trading.
My second thought about the Paris agreement is on how it will be received by communities, the energy industry and everyone else potentially involved in reducing emissions. How quickly renewable and energy efficiency companies can react and fill the space drawn by this new policy. In this regard, community solar has a real chance of providing a step change. It is cheaper than normal electricity, but it is also reliable and clean for neighborhoods and communities, despite as I explain below the way energy markets are set up do not necessarily support it.
One of the ways in which energy innovation is stimulated is through competition. We set energy markets to put in competition energy sources with one other, and rightly so. We want the most efficient power plants possible servicing our homes. It works great for large markets, when you need to constantly match demand and supply of electricity on scale.
This market competition argument breaks, in my opinion, when it comes to the specific context of neighborhoods and communities. Markets, I believe, work best if they take into account all of the consumers’ preferences. Energy markets, however, do not reflect our choice, because we don’t have much of a say on how our electricity is produced. If I don’t see the power plants and energy markets select the most efficient plants, I don’t see a problem with my electricity. In a confined neighborhood, however, optimizing for just efficiency does not lead to an optimal outcome. In my neighborhood I also want energy to be clean and reliable, because I don’t want my kids to have asthma and I want electricity not disrupted during meteorological events. For this reason, you polluting power plants are rarely located near towns or communities. However, if power plants are too far, electricity might become unavailable during emergency situations like storms and hurricanes (e.g. 3,000 homes affected by outage during Revere tornado in 2014).
Yet we keep hearing how solar energy is not competitive against other types of electricity. And ironically, this argument tends to freeze rather than support innovation and progress. Nuclear against solar; wind against coal; gas against nuclear, etc. The latest example comes from Peter Thiel, an investor in a nuclear company. His article makes the point that this new nuclear offers a better long-term alternative to solar and wind. Consequently, we should hold our breath until this technology comes around. It assumes that homeowners and residents should have no choice or input in how their electricity is produced. Whether you agree or not with climate change, it’s hard not to see the case for a community’s freedom and ability to pick their own energy source, which could be there also for emergency situations. There is nothing wrong with a clean and reliable futuristic power source, but why not start harvesting solar energy today?
At this stage, collecting energy directly from the sun is likely the easiest method to generate power for a community, which is why solar is being captured and monetized all over the United States. All you have to do in order to capture solar energy, is to place a PV panel on the ground or on the roof and connect it to the grid. It then starts operating on its own. That's all there is to it.
When you compare this with the eye-staggering complexity of extracting, refining, transporting, storing, and putting hydrocarbons through incredibly sophisticated engines, it is mind-boggling why anyone would oppose solar. Let’s move away from this artificial competition argument, and do what makes the most sense. It's about common sense.
If we want safe nuclear energy and we are willing to wait for another 5 or 10 years, we can do that, but in the meantime why not install simple, easy-to-manage solar community farms across our beautiful towns? We need to get the power back to decide which form of energy we should rely on. Who said that energy should be decided in a board room? Why shouldn’t our neighborhoods be in charge of their own electricity selection?
True, there are some financial mechanisms by which you can ask the utility which form of energy to supply to your house, usually at a premium price or on fixed contract. You can pick solar or wind energy, as an example. Solar farms are beautiful, however, and if combined on-the-premise batteries they can work during emergencies. Coupled with energy storage, they can provide an emergency source of electricity for the neighborhood. In case of a black-out, the batteries attached to a community-owned solar farm can be a last resort source of electricity. You could even charge your electric car connecting it to the solar farm, and then bring it back home to power your appliances. There are so many possibilities with community solar I and everyone else should really be excited about.
While the debate between different forms of energy grows stronger by the day, with complex arguments being made for new pipelines and gas power plants, the COP 21 has demonstrated that the time for argument is over and the time for action is upon us. It is clear that climate change is upon us, and the attempt for a top-down solution is underway. While this proposed solution is welcome news, it is well known that the costs associated with such system can be extremely high. Therefore it is up to each community to do their part to mitigate these issues and it is clear to many that solar energy is the way to do this.