Solar energy: how to start a rooftop revolution

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Wolfgang Gründinger, Chief Evangelist, Enpal

  • Solar energy systems have long been too complex and costly for many homeowners to install.
  • Startups are now disrupting the traditional energy market and starting a ‘rooftop revolution’.
  • Consumers can benefit from generating their own energy while also contributing to the wider network.

We all know about the climate crisis. Every Friday, youth across many countries take to the streets to strike for climate action. Across the world – be it Brussels, Beijing or Washington DC – policy-makers, business leaders and scientists are working to mitigate carbon emissions.

There is some good news. Solar and wind power have matured and become affordable over the past two decades. Solar, in particular, is expected to lead a surge in renewables in the 2020s, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

But progress is slow. Global greenhouse gas emissions are still on the rise, and the growing demand for energy is too often satisfied with fossil fuels.

Even in Germany – often portrayed as one of the leading countries in renewables – almost 90% of all suitable roofs still have no solar installation, according to consulting firm EUPD. This number refers to private homes with one or two families. For apartment buildings with many tenants, the share of roofs without solar is even lower.

Only one in 10 rooftops in Germany have a solar system
The potential for rooftop solar energy remains largely untapped in Germany. Image: Enpal

The sluggish progress doesn’t stem from lack of information or low public support. Nine out of 10 Germans are found to support solar rooftop installations, making solar panels the most popular energy source.

But while so many people are willing to do their part in addressing the climate crisis, why are there so few who act upon it?

Solar uptake requires behavioural change

Diffusion of Innovation theory provides an answer – changing one’s behaviour often takes strength and discipline, as well as time and money. A classic dilemma set out in social science is the “trivial contribution problem”: that one individual’s contribution to a problem, such as the climate crisis, is so small that it seems negligible, and hence the individual sees no reason to act.

Social scientist Harald Welzer says that people therefore need a “primary benefit” to act – the change must be simple, convenient, better than before, and ideally save time and money. Only if there is such a primary benefit, do most people change their behaviour.

The motivation to protect the climate might sound convincing, but in fact doesn’t trigger behavioural change, according to Welzer, as environmental protection is only seen as a “secondary benefit”, rather than a primary one, to many.

New players make solar energy easy and affordable

For a long time, solar energy has been complicated and expensive leading to so much untapped potential when it comes to its installation. A homeowner interested in installing a solar system had to deal with issues such as taking out a loan or sacrificing savings, finding a trustworthy installer, dealing with insurance and maintenance, and so on. Too often that meant stress and substantial cost, so why go to all the effort?

However, startups have recently recognized these challenges and invented new business models that make it easy for homeowners to join the solar movement and become “prosumers” – people who produce and consume their own green electricity.

The trend started with California-based startup Sunrun. Within a few years only, Sunrun has become the leading US home solar panel and battery storage company.

Solar leasing systems on the rise

Solar leasing is also catching up in Europe. Berlin-based startup Enpal has, according to consultancy firm Deloitte, become the fastest-growing tech company in Germany and its first greentech unicorn. Many other companies have now started to copy that business model.

Enpal’s idea is simple yet effective: by offering solar power for lease through a subscription model, homeowners save high investment costs and don’t have to deal with monitoring, insurance or maintenance of the system.

With no upfront costs and low fixed lease payments, consumers benefit from clean energy produced at home, both for personal use and the sale of excess electricity to the grid. That makes solar energy easy, affordable and accessible – and taps the dormant potential of clean energy at home, thereby igniting a solar movement.

‘Rooftop revolution’ on solar energy

With the shift to electric vehicles the demand for green energy is huge. Amid rising energy prices, consumers are looking to become independent from traditional suppliers and fossil fuels, save money on their electricity bill, and do their part to address the climate crisis along the way.

The time is right for citizens to take their energy into their own hands—Wolfgang Gründinger, Enpal

Policymakers have worked to help photovoltaic to break through. Indeed, political feed-in guarantees and maturing technology have brought costs for solar energy down. According to the IEA, solar power is now cheaper than new coal or gas-fired power in most countries. “I see solar becoming the new king of the world’s electricity markets,” IEA executive director Fatih Birol predicts.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

Moving to clean energy is key to combating climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated.

Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago. Plus, improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy (the amount of energy used per unit of economic activity) are slowing. In 2018 energy intensity improved by 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010.

Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.

Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest in terms of readiness account for only 2.6% of global annual emissions.

To future-proof the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials Platform is working on initiatives including, Systemic Efficiency, Innovation and Clean Energy and the Global Battery Alliance to encourage and enable innovative energy investments, technologies and solutions.

Additionally, the Mission Possible Platform (MPP) is working to assemble public and private partners to further the industry transition to set heavy industry and mobility sectors on the pathway towards net-zero emissions. MPP is an initiative created by the World Economic Forum and the Energy Transitions Commission.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

Indeed, this “new king” of solar power will not be in the hands of the few but in the hands of the many, thanks to a bottom-up movement in which anyone with a roof participates in tomorrow’s energy supply.

The time is right for citizens to take their energy into their own hands. As regulators push for more renewable energies and startups make it easy to generate clean energy at home, it’s time for a rooftop revolution.

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