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The CitizenPower project started out in spring 2012 as a Master thesis at FH Potsdam studying the social dynamics of community based solar projects. These are groups of people privately pooling money in order to erect and operate small-, mid-, and at times large-scale photovoltaic installations on third party real estate—predominantly on rooftops.
This movement has continuously evolved: Starting off with a few strange people erecting wind turbines (so called “Bürgerkraftwerke”) in the late 80s and moving to more mainstream photovoltaic (PV) installations (aka “Bürgersolaranlagen”) in more recent years.
Grassroot solar groups have witnessed a somewhat dramatic quantitative expansion lately, mostly thanks to feed-in tariffs (aka “The EEG”) and other favourable legislation throughout Germany. As far as estimates go, there are between 1,000 and 5,000 ( some say more) such groups operating in across Germany today (and still counting).
This holds a paradigm shift, a true democratisation of energy. Similar decentralizing dynamics appeared in entertainment, electronics, education and other sectors. As Clay Shirky notes “once you see this pattern—a new story rearranging people’s sense of the possible, [...]—you see it everywhere. First, the people running the old system don’t notice the change. When they do, they assume it’s minor. Then that it’s a niche. Then a fad. And by the time they understand that the world has actually changed, they’ve squandered most of the time they had to adapt.”
Germany is currently at a stage were this movement is turning from a fad into a serious annoyance for the established fossil-nuclear actors of the energy sector.
Asking “Why only 5,000 such citizen-led initiatives in a country of 80 Million? Why not a 500,000 or more? Why not several of them in every town, city and street?”, we set out to study the social dynamics of the “CitizenPower” movement and its inhibiting factors.
Firstly, we conducted some empirical social research ourselves, working together with members of a local solar association in Berlin and a solar coop in Potsdam, among others. Secondly, we consulted a wide range of literature. The most relevant literature turned out to be some key writings by Rüdiger Mautz et al. on the social dynamics renewable power production, Elizabeth Shove et al. explaining the dynamics of social transformations using a relatively recent sociological concept called "Practice Theory", and Gerd Scholl, an economist exploring the marketing of sustainable services (aka "consumption without ownership") and prominently applying core propositions of Practice Theory in real world contexts.
Practice Theory in particular suggests that there are only three basic ingredients of which all social practices are made: Stuff—materials, technologies and tangible, physical infrastructure; stories—the domain of socio-cultural symbols and meanings; and skills —encompassing competence, know-how, procedures and technique. Practicy Theory argues that social practices come into existence, persist and disappear when links between these foundational elements are made, sustained or broken. It is a scheme that can be used as a guide to examine critical moments like those in which proto-practices become real (innovation), and in which established practices break down (fossilisation).
Insights, Problems & Curiosities
Combining our fieldwork with findings from the literature, a range of interesting insights evolved. Our findings suggest that in terms of the right (research-)questions, it is not just quantity that matters (e.g. “how might we enable more PV installations?”) but it is also (social-) quality that matters a lot (e.g. “At what locations should PV systems be built and by whom and under what circumstance?”):
Today, solar installations, whether community-led or not, are predominantly erected at rural and suburban locations. Cityscape solar remains a relatively rare phenomenon. This is extremely curious and potentially problematic, as high density metropolitan areas generally offer an abundance of suitable rooftop real estate as well as an abundance of potential customers for the power generated. After all, it is cities where the rooftops are. It is cities where the people are. And it is cities where electricity demand is greatest.
A survey of Berlin’s rooftops suggest that, in quantitative terms, more than half of the cities residential power demand could be generated from the city’s own rooftops.
Our key insights
Our research suggests that community solar adoption almost always spreads across decentral diffusion networks, based on reciprocal learning curves and on people’s abilities to adopt best practices from previous examples and experiences (aka learning form the pioneers).
Hence, a key insight is that widespread solar adoption in high density urban areas and beyond is almost always inhibited NOT by technical but social factors. In terms of practicy theory one could say that its neither stories nor stuff that constitutes the bottleneck but problems concerning the widespread disssemination of appropiate skill and know-how.
At the end, it is all about close knit social networks: Community solar practices diffuse and spread much faster in (rural - and suburban) communities that provide small-scale interlinked social connections; the very stuff that is most essential for adaptating best practices and skills from pioneering endeavours and for kick-starting decentralized, self-perpetuating learning curves.
Large metropolitan cityscapes by contrast seem to be too socially heterogeneous and anonymous in order to provide for these essential social conditions and thus inhibit reciprocal cross community learning and widespread adoption of community solar installations.
The community solar process
Equipped with these insights, we teamed up with members of the local solar association in Berlin (Solarverein Berlin-Brandenburg e.V.) to brainstorm and co-develop ideas on how to bridge the (social) solar gap of the cityscape and hence help improve the structural conditions for greater solar adoption in high density urban areas and beyond. The team initially mapped the constituting elements of the archetypical community solar process (based on how the majority of existing initiatives currently works.)
The process can be best described in six distinct consecutive steps/phases:
- Project inspiration and initiation
- Co-planning, development and mutual feedback
- Fundraising and organizational formation
- Materialization (installing the PV panels)
- Yield monitoring, maintenance & bookkeeping
- Learning and teaching others (mutual/reciprocal support)
At it's best, point six again leads to new inspiration and better feedback, enforcing a virtuous perpetuating circle of ever more and more successful community solar projects.
OUR BIG IDEA
The basic idea then was to emulate and project this process into an open, peer to peer web-platform. By doing that, we hope to realize particular social productivity gains, that will ultimately enable more diverse groups of people in more diverse locales to team up and plan, finance, build and maintain PV installations together; and, thus, help bridge the social solar gap inhigh density urban landscapes.
Furthermore, the platform is to provide community groups with bespoke know-how, resources, tools and technologies that enable them to manage and maintain more installations per group than previously possible. So we are talking quantitative and qualitative (productivity) gains for intensive grassroot-style growth, enabling the rise of community solar as widespread social practice. It's about making community solar, which seems to be more of a proto-practice today, actually become real and mainstream.
How can it work? - the basic concept
The productivity gains are to be archived by A) plain technology driven efficiency increases and B) by enabling greater transparency and the kind of social connectedness that is so essential for peer to peer learning and for kick-starting the decentral diffusion of ideas, concepts and adaptations of best practices.
Based on this concept, the co-design team envisioned “Sunride”, a peer to peer platform and sketched out all its main moving components and features. Our sketches took inspiration from some of the design and service patterns of existing peer to peer platforms (e.g. Wikipedia, Gidsy, Araigslist, Airbnb, Lyft, Udacity, Kickstarter, Linux etc.). These existing platforms already enable d dramatic and disruptive shifts in other sectors by utilizing social mechanisms that are very similar to what we are looking for.
Concept sketch & high level use cases
As of now our sketches cover the following use cases:
- The planning and development phase a of a community solar project is supported with a bespoke project diary for (publicly) capturing the project progress and a range of other shared tools and resources for mutual support and reciprocal learning.
- The fundraising phase of community solar projects is supported by crowd funding tools and peer to peer investment capabilities.
- The technical maintenance and yield monitoring of operational community solar projects is supported via an interface to read, store, retrieve and visualize inverter data in real-time.
- Bookkeeping and invoicing and other financial management tools for operational community solar projects are supported by online banking and bookkeeping capabilities that we hope will be provided via an API by a yet undisclosed banking- and financial services start-up from Scandinavia.
There is an online work in progress document outlining the development scope and high-level use cases. Please take a look for more details.
There is a work-in-progress document available on speakerdeck, outlining all our upfront research efforts as well as the plattform concept sketch. However, comming up with this idea wasn't straightforward. We had to take lots of sideways, looking at other things too. It's all in there. It's an fairly extensive document. And it hasn't been translated into English yet. But overall it is fairly visual. So looking at it, you may capture the gist of it anyway. [Note to self: Vorm verlinken noch schnell Fußnoten reinsetzen und bilder editieren!]
From concept to design
Supported by a grant from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the project has now moved from concept to design phase.
The project team currently consist of three students who are enrolled in design and media studies and one fulltime project developer who is employed as a research associate at FH Potsdam:
- Eva Pauli, student at FHP with project focus on „Communication, group-culture und language“.
- Alyssa Trawkina, student at FHP with project focus on „visual design“.
- Markus Kerschkewicz, student at FHP with project focus on „front-end development“.
- Stefan Thon, graduated in winter 2012 from FHP and is now employed as full time project developer focusing on „users und system usage“.
- (also in the picture: Prof. Reto Wettach, as principal investigator and project sponsor.)
A small, group of handpicked external advisors is in place to support the project team on their journey. (We are constantly looking to expand our network. So, please do get in touch.)
- Sebastian Meier, research associate at FHP.
- Marcus Paeschke, co-founder and CEO of Incom.org und also research associate at FHP.
- Richard Henwood, Software Engineer at Intel.
- Martin Borchert, CTO at Singchana.com
- Sarah Beckers, Communication and Conference Manager at the UNEP/Wuppertal Institute Collaborating Centre on Sustainable Consumption and Production (CSCP)
- Andrè Knörig, Designer at IxDS
Thanks to the BMBF grant, we currently have funding for two fulltime staff until September 2013 to move this project forward. We are now in process of hiring a technical developer to fill the second full time position. Take a look at the role discription and please get in touch if you are interested.
Our goal for 2013 is to team up with the Berlin solar association and to co-design a fully functional proof of concept of the Sunride platform idea together. The live web platform will provide the basis to extensively test-out our findings hypothesis in real-time with our co-design partners and other solar group. All this will happen until September 30th 2013.
Here is a work-in-progress snapshop of our project plant. This is going to be updated soon.
Most of the original research presented here, was done in scope of a master thesis at Fachhochschule Potsdam between April and September 2012. A project developer was hired full-time in October 22, 2012 in order to move this forward and act on the University's commitment to make this real.
During the past three month, we put all the necessary financial, organizational and locistical resources and structures in place enabling us go and act out our plan. The team is almost fully operational. The hands on development and evaluation effort is expected to kick-start in February/March 2013. The 2nd project developer will join us April 1st until 30th of September. This provides us with more than six intense months to turn this into something tangible.
From October until now, we spend approximately 700 workhours and €17,000.- on this project. Until the end of September 2013 (when we'll be in beta and run out of funding) we expect total project costs to reach approximately € 90,000,-. You can take a look at an excerpt of our financial planning for 2013 here. Also take a look at our weekly actuals here.
What happens then?
Beyond September 2013 we plan to transition the platform into a self sustaining organisation in order to support solar community groups in cities and towns across Germany and beyond. We take inspiration from Fritzing.org and Incom.org, previous projects at FH Potsdam that have already championed the transition from research to a small but self-sustaining (social) enterprise, with actual paying customers.
Why we participate at the Dell challenge?
If considered at DSIC, the prize money will be used to carry on the project after September and to hire a third project developer who, given our ambitious timeline, will dramatically increase our chances of achieving overall and timely success. Furthermore the money will allow us to organize a much-larger-than-currently-planned kick-off symposium in spring 2013, where we will gather all our project peers, partners, heroes and supporters form across academia, business, politics, and the third sector.
Let’s go sunriding, already!
We are going to build this thing: It’s going to be lean and mean and beautiful. And after we build it, we will create the case and structures for scale, making it available to as many people as possible. We feel that we are at the leading edge of the solar energy revolution. While we cannot look into the future literally, we DO have a few good hunches of what it could be like, if we try hard enrough. This wave is going to be big. This is going to spread all over the place. We are fully determined. Nothing will stop this. So let’s go sunriding, already!
Full explanation of social impacts and benefits:
The Sunride platform makes it much easier for a broad range of ordinary citizens to team up, learn and start to plan, fund, build and maintain PV solar installations in their communities together. Right now, our main target audience are middle age/middle class men and women. But ultimately we believe that we can make the community solar process and practices straight forward enough to dramatically broaden the social spectrum of the groups and individuals who may directly benefit.
All “Sunriders” will experience the immediate benefit of being part of a larger social group, doing fun stuff that matter together.“Sunriding” group members also benefit economically by selling the solar power they produce into the local grid via feed-in-tariffs (FIT) or, on premise, via solar-power-purchase-agreements (PPA) or both. In regions where the cost of solar is below retail energy prices (e.g. inGermany), building occupants may benefit from PPAs by noticeably lowering utility bills. Investments in solar energy are investments made locally and thus benefit small and medium businesses, including small skilled trade and crafts enterprises.
Furthermore, every single kilowatt-hour of solar electricity that gets generated and consumed benefits the environment, as compared to the land-use, emissions and radioactive contamination issues surrounding fossil or nuclear energies. (Not to speak of long term geopolitical an economic implications).
Ultemately, what people like Hermann Scheer, Carl Amery or Amory Lovins have long argued for rings true: Energy is the key to everything else, with a multitude of cascading implications ranging from impacts on individuals and households to impacts affecting the very fabric of society at national and international levels. An economy/society based on abundant, renewable resources and open cooperative models of production and consumption is inevitably much better poised to not just become more sustainable but to be a more open, democratic, cohesive, resilient and prosperous society as well.
Full explanation of who pays for it:
Our conceptual model is based on the assumption that individuals and groups who directly benefit from using the platform to build and maintain solar installations together will pay for the value provided in form of usage fees. “Sunriders” will finance these fees from the earnings they make when selling the electricity they produce into local grids via feed-in-tariff (FIT) or, on premise, via solar-power-purchase-agreement (PPA) or both.
Statutory FITs, such as the "EEG", are public policy instruments that guarantee grid access and offer long-term contracts to renewable energy producers, typically based on current cost of generation. In regions where the cost of solar is below retail energy prices, building occupants can purchase and consume some of the solar power directly on premise. For that work, solar-power-purchase-agreement costs would have to range below retail electricity prices, yet above the rates of feed-in-tariffs.
Exact pricing models have yet to be determined, prototyped & tested with existing solar groups, but will likely vary depending on installation size and the amount of power generated annually. Sunride service fees may correspond with the amounts that existing solar groups already pay for tax advisory and bookkeeping services.We believe it's perfectly viable to evolve this into a self-sustaining business model.
Full explanation of how we measure success:
The first milestone is in July 2013:
Our initial milestone is to win one or two handpicked solar groups as co-development partners and alpha users/testers and to have a minimal-viable-version of the platform (MVP) live and running by July 2013. This provides the basis for extensive tests, evaluations and iterative refinements that we will perform together with our co-design peers until September 2013.
The second big milestone is in September 2013:
At this point the MVP should have transitioned into private beta. More solar groups and projects are to be invited to participate as beta tester/users in the development process. Working together with the groups we will continuously improve and reiterate the platform components, functionalities and features.Furthermore it’s critical that we will have reached strategic alignment and formal agreements with some key platform partners who are to provide bespoke functionalities and features via software APIs. The case and structure for scale need to be created and additional funding to carry the project forward needs to be in place. (Winning the DSIChallange would obviously help with the latter point.)
The third big milestone is sometime early/mid 2014:
In 2014 we plan open/launch the platform for the public, making it available to as many community solar groups in Germany as possible. Post launch we hope to scale the platform into a financially self-sustaining organization. Different organizational models (Coop, association, limited company etc) are to be contemplated and evaluated.
A fourth potential milestone could be reached in 2015/16:
Assuming that we reach a sustainable product-market fit for Germany sometime in 2015, we will proceed with evaluating possible and viable paths towards internationalization and begin with establishing testbeds in preferred markets. We are determined to put our focus on both, English-speaking and other European countries (most likely Ireland or the UK) as well as on Japan. In fact, we may prioritize the Japaneese market. We strongly believe that, right now, Japan is the place that could and maybe would benefit from a strong bottom-up solar movement more than any other country in the world.
As previously said, we believe that we are riding a larger wave that is eventually going to spread all over the place. So, our long term utopian vision, post entering markets in Europe and maybe Japan, is to help create and link-up a global CitizenPower movement and get Sunriding folks going in all sorts of places.
Full explanation of how we plan to do it:
All necessary financial, organizational and logistical resources + structures are in place .We are almost ready to go and act out our plan. Most importantly, a kick-ass team going to hit the ground running in Feb/March 2013. A technical back-end devloper will join full-time on April 1st.
Our joint development process is based on continuous and fast paced, iterative cycles that include four basic elements:
- Usage modelling (fieldwork, co-design, ideation and creating prototypical representation of system features and usage in form of personas, scenarios, wireframes, usage flows, information architecture etc.)
- Deriving operational profile and system/engineerieng requirements form use- cases and other usage modelling output.
- Serious back- & frontend engineering efforts.
- In situ system tests, evaluation.and improvements.
Front and centre of our development strategy is to collaborate with at least one established local solar group ("alpha-user group") in order to reverse engineer projects into the platform that already exist (aka “early alpha-projects”). This allows us to evaluate, adapt and improve our value proposition, other business model assumptions and core system features in real time within a dynamic live setting. We’ll achieve this in close collaboration with our alpha users and by engineering, testing, evaluating and refining minimal viable prototypes together on a weekly basis.
Our initial research prompts us to develop for financial management, and yield monitoring use cases first. As soon as a halfway stable system is up and running (in July 2013), we will invite a small number of other solar groups to help us reverse engineer more early alpha-projects into the plattform. At the same time we will start with developing new experimental community solar projects from scratch together (aka “early beta-projects”).
As we iterate throughearly alpha- and beta-projects, additional plattform functionalities, such as project planning and documentation tools, a community development strategy, customer support, visual design detailing and an overall system/service envelope will be co-designed, implemented, tested and improved one after the other. Last but not least we will direct our focus on implementing peer to peer investment capabilities in order to support fundraising use-cases.
With a range of beta-users and a stable, functional and useable platform under our belt, we will create the case and structures for scale and prepare for a public launch in early/mid 2014. Post launch our focus will be in on A) continuing to improve the platform capabilities and B) on scaling the service into a financially self-sustaining organisation.
In terms of our alpha-user group we have reached an (yet informal) arrangement with Solarverein Berlin-Brandenburg e.V. who will initially put nine existing solar projects into our pipeline. We will also reach out to the Potsdam based coop NeueEnergieGenossenschaft e.G. , who may participate with another three existing solar projects (one of them fairly large-scale).
In terms of experimental beta-projects, we plan to collaborate with a Marburg based solar association who have a proven track record of consistently launching at least one new community solar installation every other month or so.
In order to provide financial management, VAT and integrated bookkeeping capabilities for our community solar groups, we have entered a (still informal) conversation with an innovative and open minded Scandinavian based banking- and financial services company.
For application hosting, sys-ops and management, we are in negotiations with The unbelievable Machine Company , a Berlin bases PaaS provider.
Additional thought: Community solar is here to stay!
The economics of PV energy suggest that community solar groups are going to stick around for a while. In contrast to the pioneering wind turbine endeavours from the late 80s and early 90s, there are different kinds of economies of scale at work with solar which suggest that today's solar groups can not be challenged by more “professional” organizations.
Prices for solar panels and feed-in tariffs have been declining almost fivefold in recent years. At the same time, the average PV installation size, limited by size of rooftops available, is remaining the same. Unlike the ever increasingly more powerful modern wind turbines, solar arrays are are only getting cheaper, not more powerful and expensive. In contrast to the wind energy sector, this dynamic doesn’t provide much scope for widespread professionalization down the road. Solar is best suited for enthuisiasts and amateurs.