Setting our minds for the energy transition


By: Laure-Emmanuelle Perret

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Photovoltaic experts and scientists are unequivocal. The BIPV or EPoG "Energy positive glazing" technology (see article of 08.05.2019) offers necessary solutions to today's climate and energy challenges. In Switzerland, the production potential of the building stock is estimated at 67 TW/h with the majority of roofs and façades covered. With a demand of 50 TW/h, a large-scale deployment of EPoG technology would therefore make it possible to "decarbonise" the country. As we heard again recently as conclusion of the NRP 70 and 71 projects of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), the "problem" is no longer technological, but requires us to dare to innovate both in our social and economic model.

The enormous potential of solar technologies comes up against political inertia, the influence of lobbies defending in particular the interests of the fossil fuel sector, the reluctance of banks, and the still too conservative vision of the building sector. This implies a change of paradigm, as mentioned in the previous article, notably through greater transparency of the financing methods in place and the development of truly attractive framework conditions. Everyone must assume her or his share of responsibility. In the construction sector, such a change will only be possible if the whole sector shares the vision of the future of energy self-sufficient or even energy-producing buildings and reorients its practices in this direction.

The year 2019 is one of the record years. Some regions have never recorded such high temperatures. Thunderstorms and floods have given way to the ozone peaks, drought and dramatic fires we have witnessed. So, what are the many bottlenecks that prevent the widespread deployment of building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) today? The technologies that are nevertheless mature, profitable and capable of decarbonising Switzerland by potentially covering the Swiss energy demand of 50 TW/h (with a majority of façades and roofs covered, the potential is 67 TW/h) are still so little used.

The Swiss Confederation is in an observation phase with the implementation of its Energy Strategy 2050. Initial results show that conventional systems - panels applied on top of existing tiles - are most often installed on only part of the roofs when they could have been fully covered. This strategy does not offer sufficiently attractive conditions, particularly with regard to encouraging household self-consumption. The feed-in rate for excess electricity generated by a household depends on the supplier, but is generally low and without guarantee (generally between 4 and 10 cts, and sometimes less than 4 cts per kWh). Homeowners are therefore reluctant to invest in these technologies. To create a real incentive, a feed-in tariff of 10-15 ct/kWh with a 15-year warranty should be ensured. Another limiting aspect for homeowners is the costly process of bringing electrical systems into compliance. However, as they are favourable to electricity companies, this sector is opposed to any change.

Politicians have the task of creating better framework conditions or even new regulations. A right-wing political agenda based on individual responsibility is not enough. A commitment to the simplification of administrative procedures or the granting of additional financial support to the cantons and municipalities is necessary. Nevertheless, it is observed that such changes are too often slowed down. Conflicts of interest and influence (lobbies) contribute to this status quo, preventing development geared to resilience and sustainability.

The banks also have their share of responsibility. Owners of photovoltaic investment projects are often turned down by their banks when they should be allocating loans without discussion and on excellent terms.

However, the deployment of these technologies is not only based on the framework and financial conditions, but also on a change in values among owners. The financial aspect, the return on investment in the short term and at all costs, is likely to become less important. Why shouldn't people enjoy investing in a solar facade or roof, just as they do when buying a car? These energy-producing glasses have an undeniable aesthetic dimension and are even a source of income.

Sustainability must become a priority criterion at all levels. A common vision of self-consumption in buildings must become the norm. The value of EPoGs, their ecological but also aesthetic dimension, is not yet recognised by architects and the general public. Moreover, this technology must be integrated from the very beginning of projects to avoid additional costs associated with the retrofitting of photovoltaic elements.

The conclusions of the 300 researchers who contributed to the SNSF's NRP 70 " Energy Turnaround" and NRP 71 "Managing Energy Consumption" projects are clear: The transformation of the energy system requires, in addition to the implementation of new technologies and infrastructure, effective regulations and incentives to encourage voluntary behavioural changes. It is also essential to close the knowledge gap among the population at all levels, citizens as well as political and economic decision-makers in this field, which is indispensable for achieving general acceptance.

Our youth is on the streets today demonstrating against political inaction, citizen initiatives are emerging from all sides showing us that other models are possible, the recent elections indicate a desire and need for change.

We know and have everything to succeed; we just have to want it! So, let's go for it!

Laure-Emmanuelle Perret, EPFL, COMPÁZ
Neuchâtel, the 17th of January 2020