Community Scale Solar: Portland (OR) and Durban (South Africa)

[A piece I wrote is running in the most recent edition of UN-Habitat's Urban World magazine.  The article covers a gutsy and successful residential solar project in Portland (OR), and a similar project that I gave a hand with in Durban (South Africa). OK, I admit I'm a bit late putting this up. But the craziness of finishing my PhD in December meant that the edition initially slipped under my radar. You can download the article here (.pdf), or read a slightly expanded version below.]

Until recently, when we talked about urban responses to climate change, the focus was on what the city government was doing to improve its own operations. Mayors from around the world talked about the huge impact that cities could have, but concrete projects were more modest: energy-efficient traffic lights here, a few green municipal buildings there.

The discrepancy isn't hard to explain.

Yes cities have a huge footprint, but municipalities only control a small fraction of it. Really transformative change needs to happen at the level of communities all across a city – not just in city hall.

Making that shift from climate “government” to climate “governance” is a tough nut to crack. But recent solar energy and hot water programs in the U.S. and South Africa show how – by working at the neighbourhood level – both community groups and municipalities can spark rapid technological change.

Solarize Portland: Grass Roots, Solar Roofs
In under two years, neighbourhood groups in Portland (OR, USA) have transformed the local solar energy market. Started in 2009, a community driven program called Solarize Portland has installed 2 megawatts of solar energy capacity on 585 homes across the city of Portland, and installations are ongoing.

Rolling out networks of decentralized renewable energy across existing neighbourhoods – not utopic green field developments – is one of the holy grails of urban sustainability. How can we collectively transform existing urban energy systems, not just dream up better cities for the future? The Solarize project gives us some clues – and recently the successful model jumped an ocean and has been the seed for a similar project in Durban (South Africa).

Solarize Portland started in the city's Mt. Tabor neighbourhood with a simple question:
“Wouldn't it be cheaper to install solar panels on my house if a bunch of my neighbors were doing it too?”
I met some of the families who started the project and when it all began they had modest hopes.  If they could get 20 homes to install, then bulk purchasing and competitive bidding for the contract could bring everyone's costs down. In the end their impact has been much bigger.

For homeowners, installing a residential solar system can be intimidating. There are multiple competing contractors, technologies, methods of installation. The high upfront costs also turn many people away. To address both cost and complexity, the people behind Solarize designed it to be a “one-stop shop” for residential solar.

Neighbourhood volunteers promoted the program, and helped run information workshops that demystified the technology and laid out the advantages of collective installations. By signing up to the process, households would receive full support from the initial assessment of the suitability of their property right through to installation, the final inspection of the work, and the application for available subsidies.

The program grew up as a partnership between local volunteers, Southeast Uplift (a coalition of neighbourhood associations), and the Energy Trust of Oregon (a state-wide NGO focused on energy issues). They calculated that simply by clumping neighbourhood installations together under one contract; competitive bidding and bulk purchasing would cut installation costs by 25 percent. Then by bringing together all the available local, state, and federal subsidies and incentives, they could cut costs even further. In the end homeowners paid only 10 to 20 percent of regular installation costs.

In its first six months, Solarize more than tripled the total number of installations carried out in the city the year before. At the same time, non-Solarize installations also grew by 350%. In total, installations went from under 50 in 2008, to almost 350 in 2010. Solarize's success has been due to more than just getting the finances right.

The rapid growth of the project has depended on neighbourhood level social ties and a feeling of pride that comes as residents see their neighbourhood being transformed one roof at a time. Tim O’Neal, Southeast Uplift's sustainability coordinator, highlighted that larger overall impact :

“This project has truly brought our community together, all moving toward one goal. From attending workshops to watching as neighbors went solar street by street — it’s been great to see what we’ve been able to accomplish as a group.” 

Propelled by this sense of community, the program grew exponentially. Interest in Solarize spread to neighborhoods across the city. With some logistic support from staff in Portland's Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, Neighbourhood Associations all across the city are now running their own projects. It has also been adopted by neighbouring cities and towns, and even a city farther away.

Shisa Solar in Durban
In late 2010, the Energy Office in the coastal city of Durban (South Africa) was looking for ways to boost solar hot water installations in the city. South Africa is still recovering from a debilitating electricity supply crisis, and up to 30% of household electricity use goes to hot water. Rooftop solar thermal is an easy and affordable way to significantly lower residential energy consumption. But, as had been the case in Portland, the cost and complexity of installing the systems held homeowners back.

The two cities are linked through their joint membership in a global urban sustainability network managed by Vancouver-based Sustainable Cities International. Members of the Solarize team in Portland began brainstorming and exchanging information with Durban's Energy Office. In February of 2011 Durban launched their own Shisa Solar Program that adapted some of Solarize's basic principles to Durban's needs and context.

In it's first 6 months, 1000 households have registered with Shisa to express their interest in installing solar hot water.  Shisa then matches up neighbouring homes across the city into bundles of ten or more that can be bid on by local contractors. Actual installations are still at an early stage, but the rapid response from residents makes organizers optimistic about its impacts.

Derek Morgan, manager of Durban's Energy Office, chalks up public interest to the allure of a good deal:

“We are using simple economic principles to make solar hot water installations more affordable.”

But beneath that, the program also helps to give homeowners confidence and trust in a process that could otherwise be quite foreign. There are over 400 registered solar hot water installers in the country and the information they provide is often conflicting. Shisa acts as an authority to vouch for the reliability of both the technology and the installers selected to work with the program.

Social/Solar Networks
Solarize and Shisa Solar are both path breaking projects among efforts to reduce cities' carbon footprints and increase urban energy independence. Efforts to mobilize public action around climate change traditionally focus on educating people about the positive impacts of their individual choices. The assumption is that the cause of inaction is a lack of information. Solar projects in Portland and Durban have succeeded because they've left this approach behind.

Rather than focus on individuals, Solarize and Shisa focus on neighbourhoods. This has financial benefits, because it opens up new economies of scale. But it also links these projects into the social networks that hold communities together allowing them to contribute to and benefit from the sense of collective accomplishment that comes from making meaningful change.

Beyond this, these projects have recognized that the principle barrier to action is not a lack of information, but a lack of trust. With so many competing sources of information, having a credible locally-based group evaluate the various options and simplify the process of technological change has been the key to rapid implementation.


1 Response to "Community Scale Solar: Portland (OR) and Durban (South Africa)"

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

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