Cities: the new power cells of Europe

12 December 2022

Northern Europe is not synonymous with hours of life-giving, warm sunshine. Despite this, Berlin’s plans for a ‘solar city’ are central to its commitment to become climate neutral by 2045.

In 2020, following the adoption of its solar city master plan, the city saw a roughly 100% increase in installing new photovoltaic panels on 2019 numbers. Solar is projected to represent 25% of the city’s energy production in the coming years.

As Ulrich Seifert, Policy Advisor in the Division for Energy in the Senate Department for Economics, Energy and Public Enterprises, Berlin, explains, “solar uses existing surfaces that are not used for other means, meaning that we can increase our energy production without having to find new space on which to situate it – that’s essential for a dense city like Berlin if we’re to meet our clean energy goals.”

Whether that happens or not is going to depend on how well the city administration can convince homeowners, businesses, and others to take part in its planned solar revolution and how its own actions combine with those of the national government and EU.

Help is at hand

A solar revolution may all be well and good on paper. However, with the anticipated winter fuel crisis, and price spikes already impacting people’s ability to heat their homes, one might question whether it wouldn’t be more prudent to concentrate on immediate concerns.

The task is all the more gargantuan when one realises that Berlin’s current solar output represents only around 1.3% of its energy nexus.

Of course, as Seifert notes, “we need to scale up the use of renewable energies right now because what we see in this moment of crisis is that renewable energies are the only energy systems where the prices don’t spike all of a sudden. Over the long term, that will be the best option for us. But when it comes to today’s energy prices we have other programmes in place, including support from the federal government.”

While German federal law precludes state administrations like Berlin from duplicating any support measures concerning subsidies for renewable energy, limiting the possibility of creating targeted funding measures, the city has been able to move forwards with a range of other measures designed to speed up its solar adoption rate.

One initial barrier the city has been able to overcome was simply a lack of access to reliable information on choosing and implementing a solar project.

SolarZentrum is Berlin’s solar consultation service. It is designed to encourage building owners to invest in solar energy systems and provide them with the information they need to become aware of the opportunities offered by solar energy.

Furthermore, a funding programme, SolarPLUS, organised via the senate department in which Seifert works, offers a range of support options, including funding for detached and semi-detached homes, as well as commercial properties, to further accelerate the expansion of photovoltaics in Berlin by improving the profitability of solar systems.

And, from January 2023, it will be compulsory for new buildings in Berlin and those undergoing major renovation works to the roof to include solar power.

Everything the light touches

The majority of Berlin’s solar potential comes from the 16% of buildings owned by companies and cooperatives, closely followed by the potential offered from the city’s over 290,000 residential buildings. In contrast, the council’s approximately 9,000 publicly owned buildings only account for around 8% of Berlin’s total photovoltaic potential. Nonetheless, the city’s actions on its own buildings must serve as a model for action by others.

Moreover, studies so far have ignored the potential offerings of approximately 19.5% of Berlin’s total gross roof area covered by historic buildings, which can be difficult due to the need to preserve cultural heritage, but for which solutions are still being sought – such as adapting roof tiles, or placing solar cells on areas, not in the public eye, which is already the case for the solar installations on the town hall.

What is clear, however, is that a combined effort is needed. For the city administration, this means at all levels – solar energy is even a topic now discussed in schools, and the city soon plans a climate workshop to provide a place where young people can enhance their knowledge in the field of renewable energy, according to Seifert. And university level architecture students have been encouraged to focus their research on solar solutions, thanks to a special prize awarded by the senate department in recent years.

In this sense, the solar city master plan has always been designed as a participatory process. Other examples of how the city encourages this include preparing better information for investors on the economic benefits of solar systems and organising a ‘roof swap’ meetup to bring together potential investors and homeowners.

With such large-scale ambitions for solar, the city is also taking an active interest in the supply side of the market. There is no point in making such grandiose plans if no one can implement them. As such, one of the roles taken on by the city is to ensure there are sufficient skilled workers capable of installing photovoltaics. For example, in its cooperation with schools, the city ensures that teachers now know about solar professions to impart career advice, and it is also cooperating with guilds in the city to ensure there are clear routes into the solar profession.

In addition, Berlin has already listed several flagship achievements, such as covering the city’s Olympic stadium with over 1,600 photovoltaic cells to power its ventilation, cooling and lighting, among other things. It also gained buy-in from an ice cream manufacturer now using photovoltaics as part of its carbon-neutral production chain.

An energy community

The impetus on solar adoption is clearly shared at EU level – its Solar Strategy, which Seifert describes as “a good signal,” aims to more than double solar photovoltaic capacity across the Union by 2025 under the RePowerEU initiative. Given the density of building infrastructure in cities, it’s clear that bringing cities on board can provide a vital boost to EU ambitions while ensuring the benefits of a just energy transition are widely shared across society. For cities themselves, working with the EU can offer a much-needed opportunity to scale up their renewable energy provision.

But there are limits to what even a leading city such as Berlin can do by itself, especially when considered geopolitically. On the other hand, there is a lot that the EU can do to set the right conditions to accelerate the solar roll out and support Europe’s independence from fossil fuels, protect Europeans from fossil fuel price volatility, and achieve European climate goals.

The upcoming revision to the EU’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive could, for instance, mandates on a European level that all EU member states effectively follow the lead of Berlin to install solar energy on all new and renovated buildings, as well as existing non-residential buildings.

Doing so would bring a ray of sunshine to the coming winter.

Berlin is part of the Mayors Alliance for the European Green Deal, which strives to show that a sustainable transition is possible with mayors and cities on board.

Main image: copyright Thomas Rosenthal_SolarZentrum


Alex Godson Eurocities Writer