One of the most salient memories from my childhood was curling up on the couch in our den, flanked by my father and pizza, watching Back to the Future. In one of its most iconic scenes, Doc Brown, limbs flying, white hair shooting into the air, screams, “1.21 gigawatts, 1.21 gigawatts?! Great Scott!. . . how am I gonna generate that type of power? It can’t be done!” With no other solutions for his energy need, Doc was forced to be creative, rigging a device that harnessed lightening to power his time machine, sending Marty back to the future. Today, climate change is forcing us to be creative. Climate change is among the world’s most acute problems, presenting us with challenges like how to mitigate its effects and how to meet present and future energy demands, both of which require creative financial and technological solutions.
At the beginning of the year, I talked with Andreas Karelas, Executive Director of RE-volv, a California-based solar initiative, about solar energy’s role in the type of energy that can power everything, what exactly a revolving fund is, energy technology, and how renewable energy can change the structure of society so we don’t have to live in the past. Find the first of four parts below.
SN: RE-volv is an interesting name. Can you explain how the name came about?
AK: There are two parts to the name: one is that we have a revolving fund for solar energy, meaning we finance solar projects for nonprofits and cooperatives that serve their communities. These projects pay us back and we use that money to pay for the next project, so the fund is continuously revolving.
The other part is that it’s of my opinion that renewable energy is going to be a massive shift for the human species, that we are entering into a whole new world with renewable energy and the potential that it offers. So, in a way, we’re evolving through renewable energy.
SN: Why Solar?
AK: The main reason is that climate change is a big problem and the movement to halt climate change isn’t making a large enough impact. One of the reasons why is that people don’t feel empowered to stop polluting and start making energy from clean energy sources. Everybody knows about climate change, but some people deny that this is actually a process happening to our world. I’m of the opinion that, and there’s a lot of evidence to suggest this, people don’t want to believe climate change is real if they don’t feel they can do something about it. Our crowdfunding model gives people a way to feel empowered, because if you have a couple bucks you can contribute and, together, we can build a movement that invests in solar.
Another reason is that solar is easy. You can put it up on your rooftop, it’s easy to finance, it stays there for 20, 30, 40 years, and is relatively maintenance free. So from RE-volv’s perspective, it’s a great investment.
The other benefit of solar is that solar has the biggest potential to scale rapidly, more so than any other renewable technology. The reasons why are that it’s abundant and distributed, meaning you don’t need a big wind turbine or a transmission line to bring solar to the community. Most of the world does not have the big, centralized electrical grid that we have in the US or in other parts of the world. In these places with decentralized power solar makes much more economic sense because you put the panel right on the roof and you generate power where you need it, as opposed to a centralized grid where energy is generated in one place and transmitted somewhere else.
SN: For your last project, the Kehilla Community Synagogue, how much solar energy, in absolute terms, was delivered?
AK: In terms of the synagogue, based on their previous energy bills, solar’s going to be powering 72% of their electricity load. In California and most parts of the U.S. there is a policy called net metering. Here, over the course of the year you are either using electricity from the solar panels or you’re selling it back to the grid. At the end of the year the utility calculates the bill by looking at how much you produced versus how much you purchased from them. Hence, based on their previous energy bills, we can see that we’re going to generate 72% of their current load, which is great. They actually have a number of initiatives to make energy efficiency improvements in the building, for example using LED lighting and doing winterization, that will actually reduce that gap, so we’ll get even closer to being 100% solar powered in the synagogue.
SN: You said solar is easy to scale, and one of the biggest problems with any renewable energy technology is meeting demand and intermittency. You’ve just shown how this works on the small- scale at the synagogue, but how would it work on a macro level, especially considering our current power grid which is not equipped to take advantage of, in this case, solar technology? How do you see RE-volv fitting into this macro-level infrastructure?
AK: This is the question of the day, and it’s a great question. The grid operators and utilities want stability more than anything: a grid that is going to produce reliable power on dispatchable schedules that can be managed and sold appropriately. Our energy infrastructure is built around these concepts and we have large, central power stations, like a coal plant or a nuclear plant which take a lot of energy to get up and running. Once they’re running, they produce what’s called baseload power. During peak periods, like in the middle of the day when everybody turns on their AC [air conditioning], peaker plants—for example, natural gas plants—that can easily fire up or down, are briefly switched on.
The utilities and the grid operators like this setup because they can turn the plants on and off at will and they know how it works. Some renewables have the problem of intermittency due to being variable resources, meaning, for example, that the wind doesn’t always blow or the sun isn’t shinning all the time. This is scary for grid operators because these resources can’t be controlled. So what does this mean for making a 100% renewable grid? What it means is that we need to reimagine the grid as a network instead of a centralized system where power is transmitted across large distances to communities. This new, or “smart” grid as it’s being talked about, would be a distributed network so that everyone, everywhere would both generate and consume electricity.
What this would look like on the city-wide level is that every suitable rooftop would have solar. There may also be fuel cell generators in people’s homes for storage purposes. Electric vehicles would play a role because they could also serve as storage. The idea behind this is that they are plugged-in when they are not being driven, and this gives them the possibility of both charging and, if needed, giving power back to the grid. Wind farms located outside of large urban areas transmitting power would also play a role in this larger infrastructure along with large battery banks for power storage. All of this would be coordinated via an internet energy connection that connects meters in homes and buildings to the grid. The grid is “smart” because it will be able to communicate to itself and predict when to utilize which renewable energy source and in what amount based on things like peak usage times and weather patterns.