Alternative Energy - Community Solar (A conversation between two old men in Odessa)

Way back when Adam was just a lad and hadn’t even thought of Eve, I moved to Odessa from Moscow.  At least it seems that long ago.  As a civil engineer with, then, broken Russian language ability and knowing nobody, I had to find something to do with my time.

I bought a number of land plots allocated for domestic housing and started building (very large) open plan houses, each and every one very different from the other, quite the opposite to Ukrainian houses which all too often seem to be a competition to see just how many small box-rooms can be fitted within the external walls of any premise.

Little did I know at the time, a famous Odessa architect called Vladimir Belekov owned land behind mine upon which he was going to build a house for his sister.  One day, Mr Belekov came calling as he noted the vastly different design as the houses started to go up.  Suffice to say we have become good friends since we first met all those years ago.

For those of you who have been to Odessa, Mr Belekov is the architect responsible for some of Odessa’s best known landmarks.

Anyway, he is semi-retired (and costs a fortune if you want him to work these days) and his son Yuri has taken over the architectural family legacy.  Quite by chance, we bumped into each other a few days ago and naturally, two older men with little to do on a hot sunny day, coffee, cigars and a chat seemed in order.

We talked of many things, of shoes, and ships, and ceiling wax, of cabbages and kings.

We also talked of our Major and his earnest self-proclaimed desire to be thought of as the new de Richelieu of Odessa.  Unfortunately, he simply doesn’t have the gift for city planning or city infrastructure that you would expect of an architect (like Belekov) or a civil engineer (like me) although both Belekov and I are strong supporters of his desire to refurbish and get back on-line a new tram line each year, many of which have fallen into disrepair and are currently out of action.

As is often the case when you are talking to entertaining and clever people, one tends to wander off along different paths in a conversation.  It is no surprise then, that what started off as a conversation about Odessa, architecture, city planning etc, meandered down environmental impacts, sustainability and eventually ended up with solar energy, even if broadly staying within the architectural and city planning sphere.

We eventually arrived at the subject of community solar and pulling unsubstantiated, albeit professionally guessed at figures, when it came to such a possibility based upon communal (and solely owned and maintained) roof space in Odessa for PV power.  In case you are wondering, we came up with between 25% and 30% of  residential roof tops being suitable for this purpose and much of that belongs to apartment buildings.

So discounting the individual with a their own house and a roof that is designed and built to take PV panels, has enough land to house the batteries away from the home as per Ukrainian regulations,  the question of ownership of the rooves which in a great many apartment blocks falls under the Zhek, a local authority entity, arises.  Others fall under similar private community organised affairs usually called, rightly or wrongly, cooperatives.

The issue with both instances is permission.  In a cooperative, all residents would have to agree.  With a Zhek owned/maintained roof, the Zhek would have the only say in the matter.  That would have to coincide with the bureaucracy of the city administrations as well - naturally - which explains why there are no apartment block rooves with solar panels in Odessa despite such spaces being obvious and structurally sound enough to do so.

Still, as old men do, we pondered the issues nonetheless and the possible models for permissions, funding et al should this one day become a reality in Odessa, either by large scale retro-fitting, a cooperative actually being cooperative amongst those that dwell within, or indeed a new build.

With a new build, we agreed, it is easy enough to pass on a percentage of the cost to the would-be apartment owners but that is the only simple solution.

For those apartment block already occupied there were far more difficulties even if all bureaucratic permissions were given.  The most obvious would be a utility sponsored model, whereby Odessa Electric for example, would cover the initial costs and reclaim them via the apartment owners over time or by selling any excess electricity into the grid to other users on the grid, or a small monthly rise in cost per kWh,  Unlikely given the shear financial burden and occupiers willingness to pay even slightly over the odds.

Another option could be a special purpose vehicle between apartment owners and a utility company, or if the power company and random external investors joined forces and up-front costs were shared, however we foresaw power struggles of the business kind between stakeholders laying in wait.

We mulled non-profit entities, charities, environmental NGOs and their sponsors taking the bull by the horns, but again foresaw legal issues without any involvement of the current monopolies in regional energy production and distribution.

I also mentioned crowd funding, something not heard of by my old friend, should there be a transparent mechanism relating to return on investment.  The issue, as always with the energy business, is transparency.

Thus it was concluded that our de Richelieu want-to-be Mayor will not be the driving force who can create the environment for community solar, despite the fact that undoubtedly there would be numerous domestic and international grants and loans for such an ambitious project to pilfer from along the way.

Wise words from two old men over coffee and cigars?  Possibly.  After all, nature gives the comb of wisdom to men of an age that have lost their hair!