The sun delivers more energy to earth in an hour than the entire world consumes in a year. It is thus no wonder that humankind has always sought ways to harness this energy for its own, sustainable, use. Yet, several problems have limited our ability to do so. First, solar energy used to be costly in comparison to fossil fuels, but prices have fallen rapidly over the last decades due to technological innovation and mass manufacturing. By now, in many regions, the cost of solar energy is lower than the cost of traditional fuels and is likely to fall further over the next decade. Second, and perhaps more important, is the distributed nature of solar energy that, in most cases, is markedly different from the highly centralized energy systems we know today.
What does this mean?
Non-renewable energy sources have formed a critical ingredient of industrial modernity since the early 1800s. To solve the environmental problems of our time we need to substitute these sources with sustainable alternatives, but this is impossible without changing the underlying models of governance. That is, the rules that shape the current energy system, and industrial modernity as a whole, are not designed to keep energy consumption in check, nor to enforce sustainability. In response to this, the idea of solar democracy is to shift away from a centralized energy system, primarily owned by a few big utilities, to a system with radically distributed energy generation.
The notion that a renewable energy system has to be a distributed is system is not new, but the idea seems to, finally, pick up steam. There’s a rise in energy prosumers (households that are consumer and producer in one), more local energy communities are set up and these are supported by innovation in supply-demand balancing, decentralized energy storage and micro-grids. Moreover, our increasingly smart cities offer huge potential to integrate local renewable energies in citywide networks. In the future, we might see solar panels integrated in virtually all everyday objects.