illustration by Brianna Castagnozzi

It’s Time to Build Solar Cities
by Clark A. Miller

Why would we limit our investments in solar to just one model of techno-economic logic—and just one vision of the future of electricity and electrified life?

The city transformed is one of the most iconic images in solarpunk art and literature: smoggy, concrete, auto-centric meccas replaced by flourishing ecoscapes of solar panels, wind turbines, urban farms, and abundant, thriving, sustainable life, all nourished by the power of sunlight.

Sadly, in today’s real-world energy transition plans and strategies, the solarpunk vision of the future city just doesn’t exist.1 It’s time to change that. It’s time to build solar cities.

The solar revolution is well underway. Over the past decade, solar has dominated global power plant construction, averaging $150B+ per year, with 2021 expected to see a global record of 190 GW in new solar installations. Projections by the International Energy Agency and other global energy prognosticators forecast that by 2050, solar will serve half or more of the world’s total energy needs. Total solar capacity could reach 100 TW or more as decarbonization of the global energy sector proceeds. That’s something like 250-300 billion solar panels.

Where, exactly, will we put all of those panels?

Unfortunately, the answer at the moment seems to be to put them in the countryside, in the form of GW-scale solar fields. It’s easy enough to see why: according to the way that we ordinarily account for the costs of electricity projects, utility-scale solar plants appear cheap, easy to build and scale, and capable of generating both green electrons and substantial returns on investment. Yet, they also replicate the colonial approaches and practices that have dominated the history of the energy industry. They harness rural resources, lands, and bodies to feed the voracious appetite of cities for power. Carried to its logical extreme, this vision will blanket rural landscapes with solar panels, displace other users of the land, require ever-expanding electricity transmission grids, and perpetuate relationships of dependency between urban and rural communities.

urban solar projects can be designed so that the financial revenues that flow from energy generation are shared with low-income households, people with disabilities, communities of color, indigenous communities, and others who could benefit from a little help, reducing energy burdens, creating alternative income streams, and reversing historical patterns of racial and environmental injustice.

I propose that we leverage solarpunk to guide an alternative design for solar-powered cities. Solarpunk imagery and imagination offer a green revolution for cities, in which individuals, families, and communities harvest sunlight via multiple channels—photovoltaics, photosynthesis, heat, evaporation, and more—to create thriving and abundant urban landscapes and generative economies for themselves and their neighbors. Why not guide solar energy development by this vision?

Urban solar turns out to be a great deal! Recent analyses find, for example, that, accounted for in terms of overall energy systems costs, distributed solar energy development in cities is actually just as cost effective as utility-scale solar plants at generating green electrons to power cities. Even more importantly, urban solar projects can be designed so that the financial revenues that flow from energy generation are shared with low-income households, people with disabilities, communities of color, indigenous communities, and others who could benefit from a little help, reducing energy burdens, creating alternative income streams, and reversing historical patterns of racial and environmental injustice.

The co-benefits of urban solar are also legion—and can’t be obtained via utility-scale solar investments. Greater local resilience to the disruptive impacts of climate change on electricity grids, shade in increasingly overheated urban environments, urban beautification and public art, energy sovereignty and democracy, good jobs close to home, reinvestment of revenue streams in local economies, support for urban pollinators and community gardens … the list goes on and on. 

The key to all of this is the amazing flexibility of the solar panel. Already, photovoltaics power a range of technologies from calculators and lanterns to GW-scale power plants, and every scale in between. Even more importantly, they can be layered into the social, cultural, and economic fabrics of people’s lives and livelihoods in an intoxicating variety of ways, as exemplified by the Solar Tomorrows project from Arizona State University. Today, solar power is powering churches all over the globe, helping farmers water and shade their crops, facilitating the reconstruction of cooperatives in Europe, catalyzing grassroots resilience initiatives in the Caribbean, and so much, much more. Why would we limit our investments in solar to just one model of techno-economic logic—and just one vision of the future of electricity and electrified life?

We’re in a fight for the soul of the future, and the heart of that fight is over which solar future we will design

Solarpunks unite! It’s time to Build Solar Cities!

Here’s a solarpunk-inspired action plan to better urban futures:

  • Unleash urban solar imagination: There is no better way to facilitate the potential of solarpunk futures than to capture the imaginations of urban dwellers all over the world with the powerful benefits of integrating solar energy directly and immediately into their lives. There are thousands of good ideas out there for advancing urban solar innovation. Solarpunk stories abound, in fiction and real-life. Write about them. And then find ways to bring people together in your city to unleash their creative ideas about how to catalyze urban solar innovation. Get kids together. Get entrepreneurs together. Get communities together. And inspire them with possibilities. One of the coolest projects in alternative solar design is run by the Land Art Generator Initiative, for example. Every year, they run a global solar architectural competition in collaboration with one of the world’s most iconic cities. The result is a parade of inspirational designs for renewable energy as public art—and many of the best ideas are available on line. 
  • Level the playing field: It’s time to end artificial restrictions2 that prevent the design and deployment of urban solar projects. This will not be easy. There are lots of special interests with lots of money who’d prefer not to have solar power plants on any scale built in cities—and, to date, they’ve largely written the rules that govern solar deployment. So, if you want a solarpunk future, you’re going to have to go to your public utility commission and fight for rules that open up the rules to allow vibrant urban solar innovation. Fight for community solar, virtual power plants, financial modeling that assesses true overall systems costs, cost assessments that include the value of co-benefits, freedom for people to create their own energy systems, urban solar resilience projects—anything that allows people to pursue their own solarpunk dreams.
  • Leverage utility investments: In the coming decades, electric utilities are either going to build or buy power from a huge number of new solar projects. In Arizona, just in the next decade, new solar development will probably reach 10 GW or more. So, insist that utilities invest some or all of those resources in urban solar projects. If we look at the total benefit to humankind—not to mention to people locally—buying and building solar in cities will reap far greater rewards than building power plants in the desert or on farmland. Why shouldn’t utilities see and value those benefits? Especially municipal and other public power utilities: they have no financial interest in not maximizing societal impact. And, while you’re at it, insist that electric utilities also acknowledge that allowing others to invest in urban solar projects is essential to accelerating solutions to climate change. We’re going to need a lot of solar to sustainably power cities in the future. There’s no reason utilities need to pay for all of it. It’s all the same on the grid.
  • Demonstrate the comprehensive benefits of urban solar—and show that they far outweigh any higher costs of installation. Solarpunk stories offer a powerful tool for imagining and illustrating the societal benefits of urban solar. Write them. Tell them. Paint them. Share them with everyone in the energy sector. And find ways to make sure that those benefits are accounted for in the evaluation of solar projects and monetized, where possible, for the purposes of project financing. If you need an example, my colleagues at the ASU Center for Science and the Imagination and I have begun to curate a series of science fiction, art, and expert commentaries that use solarpunk imagination to explore alternative potential designs for the solar-powered cities of tomorrow. Our two collections to date, Cities of Light, written collaboratively with the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and The Weight of Light, written with the QESST photovoltaics engineering research center, are both free to download.
  • Diversify, diversify, diversify: When we design energy projects, we’re not just designing technology. We’re also designing the relationships between technology and a variety of human systems, such as to whom the revenues flow, who bears the costs and risks, and who reaps the rewards. Unfortunately, the design of energy systems over the past two centuries has largely acted, in that regard, as a giant concentrator of wealth and power and a giant inequality machine. The only way to alter that reality is to diversify the ownership and business models of the energy sector—and solar is a potentially powerful tool for doing that. Solar panels don’t scale like other technologies, where the bigger they get, the more money gets made. So, if we can open up pathways for more decentralized patterns of ownership in urban solar projects, e.g., the power of which has been demonstrated by the National Community Solar Partnership, we can radically diversify and distribute the wealth and power that flows from the energy sector. And that will be good for both the economy and democracy. And solar cities.
  • Do justice: Few question today the reality of energy injustice. While redlining in the housing sector and roads that were built through communities of color tend to be better known, the unequal distributions of environmental impacts, financial burdens and benefits, utility disconnections, and other costs and risks run deep and have exacerbated poverty and inequality for decades. Urban solar projects that are built by and for low-income communities and communities of color offer one tool for reversing some of that history and creating new kinds of infrastructural foundations for regenerative justice.

End Notes:

  1.  As an example, while the cover imagery found in the recent US Department of Energy Solar Futures Study does show pictures of urban solar applications (spoiler alert: they’re not solarpunk-themed) and does mention the possibility of alternative forms of solar deployment, the report provides no modeling or systematic discussion or evaluation of distributed urban solar systems.
  2. FYI: this guide is US-specific

Clark A. Miller (he/him) is a theorist and designer of techno-human futures, with a particular passion for futures that leverage deep decarbonization to enable and empower inclusive human thriving and an equitable global economy. He thinks it’s insufficient to use clean energy investments to solve climate change: with the right people-centered design strategies, that money can accomplish so much more. In his day job, he directs the Center for Energy & Society at Arizona State University and leads sustainability research for Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies, a multi-university consortium advancing cutting-edge photovoltaics technologies. He lives in Tempe, AZ, USA.