Solar energy is going local and becoming shared

Solar energy is booming. Not only is it an inexhaustible source of energy, it is also becoming ever cheaper. This applies is particular to domestic electricity generated by photovoltaic panels. This locally generated electricity will be increasingly shared in future.

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Placing photovoltaic panels on the roof of your home is an investment that can be written off over 6 to 10 years depending on whether you live in Wallonia, Flanders or Brussels, primarily thanks to incentives and subsidies. Moreover, the price of photovoltaic panels is continuing to fall, whilst their performance is continuing to rise.

Ever more local generation

Today’s photovoltaic installations are already capable of meeting a home’s full electricity needs. However, Cathy Crunelle, who heads up the Future Home Lab at ENGIE Laborelec, believes it is not economically viable for everyone to equip themselves individually. She would opt more in favour of setting up solar-energy-sharing communities.

“First we need to study our energy needs, to determine how a solar installation can really cover them”, she says. “You can use solar energy to heat water, generate electricity or recharge an electric car. Alternatively, you can store it in a battery, but to do that you have to install photovoltaic panels, possibly a solar water heater that is independent from the main installation, and connect it to a battery. An individual installation is definitely feasible, but still requires an investment that not everyone can afford.”

This is why Cathy Crunelle is drawing attention to the benefits of sharing solar energy. “It’s a growing trend that would make solar energy even more interesting”, she says.

Sharing solar energy

“Take, for example, a house whose roof is fitted with photovoltaic panels”, she continues. “They generate energy, but during the day if nobody is at home, consumption will be very low, in which case all or some of the energy generated will be lost. If the neighbours’ houses aren’t equipped with solar panels, but they are occupied during the day, they will consume energy charged at the highest tariff. So what’s the solution? The two neighbours could agree to place a power cable linking their houses so that they can share the available solar energy, one during the day, the other in the evening. This is already happening in other countries, and I think this kind of sharing will become more widespread in the future.”

Creating energy communities

The solution can be taken even further. “Instead of just installing a cable between two homes”, Cathy Crunelle suggests. “ENGIE could act as a platform between different energy consumers. We could help them optimise their consumption, power generation and storage of electricity. They would thus form an ‘energy community’. The key in this type of community is to clearly determine what each member can contribute to the group. Those who don’t have a roof big enough to accommodate solar panels may, for example, buy a shared-use battery. The goal, of course, is to store surplus generated energy so that it can be shared between the community’s various members.”

More work required

In Belgium, the creation of such energy communities is not yet on the agenda, and there is currently no legal framework for their implementation. However, last year, Cathy Crunelle and her team launched the Peer2Peer Energy Communities project to study how such communities work.

“We’re studying the legal framework country by country to make this possible”, she explains. “For example, the situation in France and Italy is currently more straightforward than it is in Belgium, though we’re confident this will change in the future. There are many countries where such a local community project would be of interest in areas with less-than-optimal power generation.”

Undoubtedly, the generation of energy for domestic use is set to become more and more local in future. Another certainty is that it will be organised more and more collectively, in energy communities. By studying this development and proposing specific solutions, ENGIE is working to create a future without fossil fuels, a future that will be accessible to everyone.

Read also: 5 things you probably don’t know about solar energy.

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