Why and How Did Solar SOAS Become a Thing?

A version of this article, written by Hannah Short, appeared in the September 2015 issue of the student newspaper the SOAS Spirit.

Everybody has heard of climate change. Quick recap: the world is heating up due to an increase in human-generated greenhouse gases (e.g. carbon dioxide), which trap heat in the atmosphere. Energy is the main carbon emitter globally, and fossil fuels are to blame. The solution is clear: we need to transition to a renewable energy-based system ASAP. Lack of government support means community energy is picking up the slack, and SOAS students have been doing their part with the student initiative Solar SOAS. 

 Charlotte, Hannah and Izzy at one of our Team Meetings

Charlotte, Hannah and Izzy at one of our Team Meetings

The situation

Scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change have supplied the figure 2 degrees Celsius as the maximum level of average warming we can reach globally before the truly irreversible destroying-earth-as-we-know-it changes are triggered by runaway warming. This 2 degree digit (which is also hotly debated, but we'll go with it for now) has allowed us to calculate exactly how much carbon emissions need to be cut worldwide. 

As of 2012, the energy sector emitted 41% of all carbon emissions globally - the largest single category. (For reference, of the remaining carbon dioxide emissions, industry emits 20%, road transport 16%, and residential 6%). (IEA, 2012) In a nutshell, even if every single person were to live a super frugal, energy-conserving lifestyle, this would be insufficient to stay under the 2 degree mark.  

If we are to drastically reduce our carbon emissions, every sector will need to make reductions - but the energy sector most of all. The culprit is clear: just 90 fossil fuel companies caused two-thirds of human-made greenhouse gas emissions since the dawn of the industrial age, including Exxon, BP, and the usual suspects. (Climatic Change 2014).

We need to both reduce our energy consumption, and switch from carbon-intensive fossil fuels (gas, oil, and coal) to renewables. It has been shown that it is possible to transition to a 100% renewable energy society - it's just a question of overcoming social and political obstacles (look up Mark Jacobson for more on this point).

Since this is a hugely important issue of global scale, surely the government is doing something about it? You might (very sensibly) be asking. Alas, the Tory win of the 2015 May election was swiftly followed by the slashing of renewable energy subsidies, and a reassertion of support for carbon-intensive oil and gas produced through hydraulic fracturing ('fracking'). Clearly this government is unlikely to provide the required support for a shift to renewables. 

While there are some reputable individual energy companies that allow consumers to opt for clean energy (such as Ecotricity, who are amazing!), the bottom line is that companies are driven by profit. 'Answerable chiefly to their shareholders and driven by the need for quarterly profits, private companies will voluntarily embrace renewables only if it won't impact their earnings or if they are forced to by law'. (Klein, 100) Since renewables are currently seen as less profitable (thanks partly to insufficient government support), companies will not willingly make the change needed on the necessary scale. 

The total investment required for the national-scale shift to renewable energy cannot come from the private sector alone. An active role of the government in public utilities is far more important. This is evidenced by the correlation between countries with publicly-owned utilities and a high proportion of renewable energy generation, as in the case of Scandinavian countries (think of healthy green energy pioneers Denmark). 

Change is now also coming from another direction - the ground up. This has been seen by the increase in community-owned energy projects, which is a grassroots movement taking matters back into our own hands. 

What is Community Energy?

Community energy has two main characteristics; 

1. Energy is produced locally

2. People make decisions about it (e.g. what is done with profits) by consensus

Typical energy production in the UK is usually privately-owned, large scale, and transported to distant places via a centralized grid.  

Producing energy locally overcomes several issues: high energy prices from energy companies driven by profit; having no control over our energy supply (such as in the face of a natural disaster); and the inefficiency of transporting electricity via a centralized grid (electricity is used up with distance travelled). 

'A locally controlled energy system would be concerned with public interests, not private profits. Residents would have greater democratic say in their energy system, rather than having decisions about them made in distant boardrooms. Money earned in the sale of the energy could go back into the city or local area rather than lost to shareholders.' (Klein, 96-7)

'By placing democratic control, shared benefits, and active participation at the centre of energy generation and demand reduction projects, community energy can create a foundation for the... action needed to reduce the impact of climate change and to increase our energy security.' (Community Energy England)

It just makes sense for the people using the service to be in control of the utility, rather than a privately-owned company motivated by profit margins. 

What is Solar SOAS?

In September 2014, SOAS students in the SOAS Energy and Climate Justice Society (ECJS) decided that we wanted to help the transition to renewable energy in the UK. The idea of an on-campus project to engage the whole SOAS community was born, and 'Solar SOAS' started to take shape. 

Solar SOAS as a concept is quite simple: students, staff, alumni, friends, and the school board will put up investment to buy solar panels for the unused roofs of the school buildings. These people will thus be the joint owners and controllers of this energy source, and will be consulted on what is done with generated funds. After the panels are installed, monetary returns are collected from the feed-in tariff (a government subsidy to incentivize green energy) as electricity is generated. The electricity produced can either be used on-site, or sold to the national grid.  This money will then be partially given back to investors, and partially invested further into clean energy projects or other community ventures as the investors so choose. 

Since SOAS already has an agreement with a cost-effective in-house Combined Heat and Power (CHP) generator which provides for most of our energy needs to 2020, the electricity generated by Solar SOAS will most likely be sold to the grid - for now. However this electricity will be used by someone, somewhere, and will thus help offset carbon on a larger scale. It will also help educate SOAS students about renewable energy, and empower individuals to take green action.  

Solar SOAS is now one year old, and has gone from being the ECJS pet project to a fully-formed social venture - and we have just registered as a Benefit for the Community social enterprise. We are also applying for various grants to cover initial costs. Last year we were finalists in the Mayor of London Low Carbon Entrepreneur Award, and we were awarded the SOAS Ignite Fund to help us get started. 

Solar SOAS is run by a dedicated team of students and SOAS alumni - and we are figuring things out along the way, proving you don’t have to be an engineer to enter into this industry. This year the ECJS has been renamed Solar SOAS to reflect our focus. We also have the support of various SOAS staff and the school Sustainability Group.

Solar SOAS is part of the decentralized, sustainable energy future of the UK. Green power to the people! 

For more information on the topics above, I'd highly recommend Naomi Klein's ground breaking book 'This Changes Everything'. And there are also plenty of other online resources! 

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