At the current rate of urbanization, a clear exponential influx of people into cities, and need for ensuring affordable and equitable resources for their living, transportation and sustenance will become a major challenge. Beyond their material demand, the majority of activities are very energy-intensive.
While promoting practices of closing the loop in Technosphere and Biosphere, major changes in energy production, storage, distribution and consumption are essential. Thus, implementing a functioning circular economy requires a paradigm shift in the current energy scenario. In a circular framework, just like regenerative material loops, it is important to ensure that the energy spent on these materials and processes are regenerative as well. Thus figuring out how to build an approach that is carbon-neutral and accessible is pivotal for our cities of the future.
Amongst all sources of renewables, solar is the most scalable in India. On average, we get adequate solar exposure for 300 days a year. Unlike others, like small hydro and wind which are accessible only within small geographical pockets, solar is much widely accessible. It is more or less plug and play approach which makes it easier for local expertise to install and service the system. Furthermore, the costs have dropped dramatically over the years, making ‘going solar’ a good decision financially as well.
There are broadly three paradigms in photovoltaics; the utility-scale ‘solar farms’ and rooftop PV and shared solar. Solar farms have been on a steady rise, with large megaprojects going live frequently and making headlines on how cheap solar has become. Rooftop PV is crucial for the renewable energy landscape as it enables on-site utilisation of power and as climate change is making our power grids more vulnerable, rooftop solar is more crucial for our power security. Yet it has attained only one-tenth of the capacity as expected by 2022. This stalling adoption rates are due to multiple factors. Most city-dwelling populations live in multiple-storied apartment buildings where there exist challenges - installing on the roof by oneself (self-installation), or else wherein shade cast can drastically affect the performance of roofs that are deterred due to shadows cast from nearby trees and structures. This is where shared solar comes in.
The Shared Concept of Solar Energy
Generally, in the form of community solar energy generation and usage, these projects are installed in areas with optimal conditions and one could co-own panels or split the power output which is metered and fed into the grid. The credit for the power is used to offset the consumer’s power bill, essentially being a proxy to rooftop solar. But there exists very few of them and the user is needed to be positioned in the same grid region to avail community solar. Digital platforms like SundayGrids are pioneering to take a step ahead, wherein instead of feeding the power to the grid, they install it for commercial entities who then pay for it in cash. This cash is then credited to the user’s/ consumer’s power bill or bank account.
There exists another inherent advantage with these digital platforms. Since they operate in a product-service system (PSS) model, the responsibility of managing the panels belongs to the platform. Thus, they are incentivized to maintain the longevity of panels for better performance and are better equipped than end-users to create closed-loop processes to repurpose them as second-life products or recycle them, preventing them from entering the waste stream. Such concept of providing service has been tested successfully in the ‘lighting sector’ by Philips and is quite possible to be extrapolated to a sector like solar energy wherein the user pays for the service offered by the digital platform like SundayGrids. The currently discussed system of solar energy usage is hoped to create a disruption the current energy supply chain while closing the carbon cycle and providing an upper hand in the space of renewables.
Solar is having its moment as compared to its peers- hydro energy, wind energy. Despite the initial inertia, as panels become ubiquitous and awareness grows, renewables are now playing a major role in the conversation around climate change and citizen action. These paradigms coupled with storage solutions and digital access platforms are the tools we need to make our cities of the future run on sustainable energy and transition to a truly closed-loop economy.
While think about powering our future cities and ensuring closed loops of materials and energy, every stakeholder needs to have a change in attitude to accept the newer strategies. In this space, one must also focus on policy commitments and financial incentives for renewable energy. Sharing systems (material and energy resources) must gain more acceptance. A sustainable regenerative economy must be founded on a sustainable energy system like Solar yet the flip side of the coin is a plethora of End-Of-Life decommissioned panels in the coming years. But the smart systems like Sunday Grids are an answer to this major challenge. It is also essential to think through the need of sharing information amongst industry players so that greener solar products are made at the start of the life cycle and also enabling less energy-intensive recycling. Thus, in a future “circular city”, the entire life-cycle of energy systems must become renewable, emission-free and inexpensive while meeting the needs of the growing population.