Intro

OK, I admit it, this isn't really about Solarpunk, at least not in the literary/artistic genre. And yet still it is, in some sense, since it is about the future that the genre envisions.

Since the beginning of the 2002 Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, a parallel economic conflict has been escalating between Russia on one side, and most European and NATO countries on the other. The “Western” side has imposed a number of sanctions, preventing circulation of most goods and people, and Russia has retaliated with the only weapon available to it, its control on the provision of natural gas to Europe. The last step of this conflict (at the moment of writing) is the “Western” side aiming to put a price cap on gas purchace, and Russia retaliating by shutting down delivery altogether.

This aspect of the conflict in particular has generated a lot of noise on social media, a significant portion of it quite obviously fed by Russian propaganda, revolving around the danger of the spike in energy prices and how its effect on the energy bill will negatively affect the “Western” economies, potentially even more than the Russian economy.

What is fascinating about this isn't so much the obvious propaganda trolling, but rather how the political discourse, both nationally and internationally, has been focused on “how to pull through the crisis” rather than on how to avoid the crisis altogether, accelerating on gaining independence from the Russian gas altogether, possibly without throwing our economies into the arms of the next authoritarian regime.

For obvious reasons, I'm talking here about plans that don't need long planning stages or lead-in times, but can still provide significant long term benefit. This excludes for example investment in nuclear energy, that in the best of cases take years to complete, with issues and delays extending this to decades, with enormous increases in costs if the experience of the Flamaville or Olkiluoto nuclear power plants has anything to teach us.

It's probably obvious from the choice of title for this post that the plans I'd rather see taken into considerations revolve around expanding renewable energy sources utilization, and chiefly solar among them.

Why solar

Why solar specifically, though?

There are several properties that make solar particularly palatable as the option to invest on in the short term. Let's see some of them.

Speed

Solar panel are ridiculously quickly to deploy. Actually setting them up takes only a few hours. Including the planning and acquisition stage one can expect to have an installation up and working in a couple of months, with delays taking up to six months: in this it's comparable to the typical deployment time for a wind farm, and orders of magnitude lower than the time needed e.g. for hydroelectric power.

Scalability and graduality

It's a very “local” power source, that “anybody” can set up on the roofs of buildings and other coverable land (thing e.g. about parking lots). It also scales well and gradually, allowing larger installations to start reaping benefits before the whole system is up, with incremental expansion.

Climate-oriented

Note that this isn't about it being more climate friendly, but rather more climate oriented, i.e. bettere suited for the direction climate is changing. 2022 has been an exceptionally hot and dry year in many parts of the world (although it's likely places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other parts of South Asia, might disagree on the specifics).

The decade of droughts that have hit the northern emisphere from Europe to China and the Americas, are affecting not only agriculture (as it has been in the previous years too), but also hydroelectric, [nuclear][nukedrought], and even coal power generation.

With the trend showing no clear sign of reversing, solar and wind promise thus to be the most “climate-oriented”, green energy sources, i.e. the ones least likely to suffer from strong setbacks in the future.

It's not perfect

Yeah, it's obviously not a perfect solution. It won't allow Europe to achieve total independence from Russian gas (or from fossil fuels) in the next 12 months. It may require significant imports of rare earths for the battery systems that help prop up the periodic discontinuity of solar. A price spike might also be expected if expansion is concentrated in the upcoming few months before winter.

Yet none of these objections, alone or together with the others, are meaningful reasons not to invest in solar (or wind) right now, because we don't need (neither should be strive for) a “perfect” solution, we simply need to get started (the earlier, the better) on a solution that can be improved and expanded in time and that can give the first results with a small turnaround. And solar is just the right thing for this.

Getting a head start

It's fascinating, really, how this has been handled across Europe. The EU is taking initiative, the Baltic countries are setting up to expand offshore wind energy production, Portugal (already getting over 50% of its energy from renewable sources, plans to further expand both solar and wind.

What I found a bit depressing is that Italy seems to be lagging behind in these projects. The last significant boost in growth of solar installations was 10 years ago, and even the proposed tax breaks in 2020 for a number of residential energy improvements don't seem to have pushed growth much.

With an incoming national election and worries about the spike of energy price, the fast route to energy independence (and solar as the means to it) should be at the center of the political discoures. And while it's completely unsurprising that right-wing parties would be more open to sucking up to Russia again, it's more troubling that the rest of the spectrum doesn't seem to even think about it, focused either on long-term project of dubious utility (nuclear power plants) or on how the “common man” may help reduce consumption e.g. by turning off and disconnecting appliances or reducing heating.

Why isn't there a “solar panels on every rooftop” plan? Why doesn't every school, office building, factory, warehouse, mall, start investing now in the installation of solar panels on their buildings, or covering their parking spaces?

And yes, I'm well aware that even starting now the benefits won't be reaped before next year, since November to January are the least useful for solar energy production, but paraphrasing a saying dear to fans of nuclear power:

the best time to install solar panels was 6 months ago, the next best time is right now