21 July 2015


Solar sector faces carbon-neutral city opportunity

Author: Jason Deign, Solarplaza

City planners could be set to become a target for the solar industry as a growing number of urban centres aim to become carbon neutral. This month representatives from at least a dozen major cities gathered in the Vatican for climate change reduction talks.

The meeting, said to be the largest mayoral gathering ever at the Vatican, featured city leaders from Berlin, Boston, Boulder, London, Minneapolis, New York, Oslo, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, Stockholm and Vancouver.

All have pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050 or before. These are “the most ambitious emission reduction targets undertaken by any cities across the globe,” according to the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance.

And some major cities have decarbonisation plans that are far more ambitious than national schemes.

In Australia, for example, “both Sydney and Melbourne city councils have exceptional solar programmes,” said Joanna Joustra, business development manager with the Australian Solar Council.

Melbourne has a target of zero emissions by 2020 while Sydney is looking for a 70% cut in carbon by 2030. These targets contrast markedly with Australian plans at national level.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott this month banned his government’s Clean Energy Finance Corporation from investing in wind projects, putting the solar industry on alert. The administration slashed the nation’s renewable energy target by nearly 20% last month.  

However, even in countries with a more progressive attitude towards solar it is often cities, rather than national governments, that are leading the charge for renewable energy.

One example is NY-Sun, the New York State initiative that has seen solar installations grow by more than 300% from 2011 to 2014, twice the rate of the US PV market overall.

Although the scheme is state wide, it is largely driven by the need to replace lost nuclear power generation serving New York City and its environs.

“Through the USD$1 billion NY-Sun Initiative, we’re making solar a reality in virtually every corner of the state and building a brighter future today,” said the Governor of New York State, Andrew Cuomo, in a press announcement.

“I am proud to see New York pulling well ahead of the national average for the growing solar industry, and look forward to seeing that momentum continue in the years to come.”  

NY-Sun is credited with contributing to solar installations topping 314 MW in December 2014 across New York State, enough to power more than 51,000 homes.

By May this year, a further 304 MW was under contract, pending installation, and an additional 66.5 MW of project applications had been accepted but had not yet been contracted.

Initiatives such as NY-Sun raise questions over whether the solar industry should be doing more to engage with city planners and urban administrations.

Guy Auger, chief executive of the renewable energy asset management company Greensolver, thinks so, as many mayors see carbon neutrality as a selling point for the urban brands they represent. “Cities want to stand out,” he said.

At the same time, affluent, pollution-conscious city dwellers “are more into ecology” across a growing number of metropolitan centres.

With city populations on the rise, and a growing need for clean energy to serve them, it could be that the deals solar developers can strike with metropolitan administrations are more straightforward, lasting and valuable than those on offer in many national schemes.

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