Going to town: Part one – planning to increase the urban uptake

What does it take to switch on a city to solar PV? The PV Up-scale consortium has just reviewed 14 major urban photovoltaic projects in five countries across Europe to see what measures have really worked. In the first of three articles, Donna Munro looks at the influence that planners and policy have in making such projects a success.

As with any market, the benefit of experience is invaluable in the successful implementation of a growth strategy. The large-scale uptake of photovoltaics in urban areas potentially represents a vast market area that could be developed under the right conditions. It’s over 10 years since the first ‘solar settlements’ were launched. For other towns or developers to learn from this experience, the PV Up-scale group set out to identify the markers of success.

The project – a review focused on the implementation of significant concentrations of PV on buildings in urban areas – studied a range of developments from those where priorities and plans are still being shaped, to projects that were installed more than a decade ago. All the projects are of a significant size, so impact substantially on the urban area where they are located. A wide range of countries, project stages and stakeholders have been involved and this has led to the collection of a comprehensive set of lessons learnt and successful methods of promoting the implementation of PV within the urban planning process.

The lessons learned are divided up into the three main stages of a project:

  • Setting the stage – the impact of planning policy on renewables within urban areas
  • Implementation – from financing to design to construction
  • Occupation – when the real success of otherwise of a project can be seen.

This article focuses on that first phase – setting the stage; subsequent phases will be covered in follow-up articles.

The role of local government

In the majority of cities that have installed significant amounts of renewable energy over the last 10 years, the local municipal government has played a key role in stimulating projects. When it comes to the installation of large amounts of PV, these cities have several important factors in common. These factors include:

  • a strong local political commitment to the environment and sustainability
  • the presence of municipal departments or offices dedicated to the environment, sustainability or renewable energy
  • obligations that some or all buildings include renewable energy
  • information provision about the possibilities of renewables.

In cities where an initial political commitment to renewables has led to successful projects, the positive results and feedback from the projects have strengthened and reinforced the political commitment – and led to further projects. Thus a positive cycle can be set up, with good and successful projects leading to further projects and the continuation of supportive policies. Ways of providing feedback to political bodies that have a positive impact include winning environmental awards – which can result in positive publicity for the city and in some case monetary prizes that can be used for the development of further projects in renewables – and ensuring that positive impacts on the local economy and consumer’s energy behaviour are identified and fed back to the decision makers.

Cities where supportive municipal policies have been a major factor in the implementation of renewables include Gleisdorf in Austria and Gelsenkirchen in Germany, as illustrated in the case studies.

Having proactive municipal environmental and/or sustainability departments or officers can make an enormous difference. They can play a key role in defining new development areas with a renewable component, linking up suitable building projects with information on renewables and providing assistance in obtaining funding. They are also involved with the drafting of supportive local policies and ensure that the wider results of renewable energy projects, such as the impact on the local economy, are fed back to political bodies, possibly leading to the continuation of supportive policies.

Renewable obligations

Obligations to include renewable energy in new developments can take different forms. In the UK a rule that 10% of the predicted energy demand from new developments must be supplied by renewables – also known as the Merton rule after the area of London where it was first applied – is rapidly being taken up by municipal authorities and is a major driver towards the implementation of renewables in the UK.

In the Netherlands, entire new cities can be defined in a top-down approach and can also include requirements for renewables. This has led to some massive projects, such as the ‘City of the Sun’ in the Heerhugowaard-Alkmaar-Langedijk (HAL) region. These huge projects can be inspirational – but they can also take such a long time to be implemented that they can be unwieldy to steer and vulnerable to changes in government policy.

In France and Germany municipalities can define new city quarters but the development of individual buildings is up to private investors. The role of the municipality is to set targets and to inform and inspire investors. Some municipalities have found methods of setting specific requirements for the implementation of PV. For example, the German city of Gelsenkirchen is imposing solar requirements in the contractual obligations for land purchases. For more details see the case study opposite.

Decisions to include renewables in a development can also come from landowners, developers and architects. For example, on a site close to the centre of Cologne, the landowner plans to create a solar housing estate with around 120 dwellings. The landowner set up an architectural competition, in which eight well-known architects were invited to realise an urban plan consistent with solar requirements and with building types fitting in with the concept of solar housing. The project received funding from the energy agency of North-Rhine-Westphalia under a programme to stimulate the development of solar estates.

In Berlin, no obligations have been imposed – instead persuasion is being used. The local municipality commissioned a solar urban master plan for the city in order to determine the solar potentials of the different city quarters. During the solar planning process 20 types of city quarters were identified, each with a solar potential that was determined by their history, structure and utilization. Then specific areas were selected as high priority areas for solar development. This assessment has now been combined with an urban renewal programme and an educational campaign is planned to inform building owners of the possibilities of PV and motivate them to invest in its development and installation.

Many of the projects reviewed in the study obtained funding through public programmes. However, capital funding programmes supporting PV have become rarer. Some projects, such as the Schlierberg solar estate in Freiburg (see last issue – REW January–February 2008) and the communal PV power plant in Gleisdorf, used innovative financing mechanisms such as shares, further explored in the next article.

Nonetheless, there is a Europe-wide trend away from capital funding, although enhanced payments for renewable electricity are becoming more widely available. When obligations are imposed on developers to include a certain proportion of renewable power generation in new developments, capital funding tends not be available – instead the provision of information is the crucial factor.

Knowledge is power

Information can be provided by different actors at different stages. Croydon, near London in the UK, was one of the first municipalities to impose a rule of a 10% renewables contribution in major new developments. They see the main barrier as know-how rather than cost, so the Croydon Energy Network’s Green Energy Centre provides advice to developers on technologies and support in accessing grants.

In Lyon, France, the local energy agency organized technical visits to renewable energy systems for housing associations. This initiative led to the La Darnaise project with PV on the facades of refurbished apartment buildings. A major redevelopment of the confluence area near the centre of Lyon is now underway and information is being provided by an informal group of local experts.

The final common factor noted in many of the innovative PV developments was that they were often based on challenging development sites. These more challenging sites seem to have inspired creative approaches and led to the inclusion of renewables in some major developments. Examples include projects to redevelop old industrial areas in Lyon, Barrow, and Gelsenkirchen, and projects initiated in areas with an image problem due to rioting or other social problems. The inclusion of renewables formed part of strategies to transform the image of areas such as La Darnaise near Lyon. The fall of the Berlin wall led to development opportunities in the centre of Berlin, and also in the centre of Freiburg, where French troops vacated a vast area after the fall of the wall.

Case studies of all the cities mentioned are being made available on the website www.pvupscale.org. Some, such as Amersfoort in the Netherlands, Freiburg in Germany, Kirklees in the UK and Gleisdorf in Austria, started supporting renewables many years ago and now have a range of renewable installations in their city – plus stronger local economies and national reputations as centres of excellence for renewables.

Other cites are midway through a process of promoting renewables and have initiated major developments with PV. These include Gelsenkirchen in Germany, Croydon in the UK, Lyon in France and the ‘City of the Sun’ in the HAL region of the Netherlands. Finally cities such as Cologne and Berlin in Germany and Barrow in the UK are just now starting the process of promoting the installation of renewables.

Donna Munro is a renewable energy consultant working with Halcrow Group Ltd.
You can contact Donna Munro at munro.donna@virgin.net

Cities With Available Case Studies


Germany’s Gelsenkirchen is a former industrial city going through a structural change. Known as the ‘City of 1000 fires’ from its coal mining industry, a new sustainable mission – the ‘City of 1000 suns’ – was created to support the structural change. As part of this mission the City provides and supports:

  • local agenda network (energy and environmental)
  • climate protection at schools (information and implementation)
  • solar urban planning
  • energy consultancy
  • installation of solar systems on communal buildings
  • solar round table
  • website

The mission has led to economic and educational benefits for the city, including new research institutes targeting solar development; production plants of solar cells and modules; the establishment of various solar systems on trade, industrial and residential buildings; and, educational options with a major focus on solar technologies.

Now a solar quarter is planned on derelict land from a former power station, close to a waterway. The area will include residential and office buildings, trade, commerce and recreation with high requirements for energy efficiency, solar urban planning and applications of solar systems. The quarter is predicted to include 2000 working places and 700 dwellings.

In an innovative approach, the city is imposing solar requirements in the contracts for land purchases. This approach is possible because the State Development Association is the owner of the land.

An investor manual has been prepared with commitments to the energy concept. Residential buildings must include a minimum of 1 kWp per unit and non-residential buildings must include PV on surfaces visible to the public. An overall urban plan has been developed, which includes a simulation of shading and solar irradiation on building surfaces. To avoid major shading of the building surfaces an advisory committee will assist individual investors.

Case study prepared by: Sigrid Lindner of Ecofys
You can contact Sigrid Lindner at s.lindner@ecofys.de

Solar City Gleisdorf

The Solar city of Gleisdorf lies in the Austrian province of Styria. Within Austria Gleisdorf is known for its numerous renewable energy initiatives, projects and measures. Many visible projects such as the solar tree (photo, right), the solar energy road and the multi-functional photovoltaic noise protection wall along the motorway support the ‘Solar City’ image of the town.

Major PV programme/projects in Gleisdorf

Since 1991 many new PV and solar thermal systems have been installed, with over 150 different projects in different locations. Approximately 350 kWp of PV systems have been installed of which the largest projects are:

  • 10.44 kWp PV power plant on the roof of the utility company Feistritzwerke-Steweag GmbH
  • 8.2 kWp PV system at the city hall
  • 7 kWp PV system on the solar tree, which is located in the middle of the city
  • 100 kWp multifunctional noise-protection PV system wall along the A2 motorway
  • 9.9 kWp installation on Gleisdorf Waves leisure pool roof
  • 10.19 kWp installation at the Äskulap medical centre.

A communal PV power plant on the roof of utility Feistritzwerke-Steweag was the first PV power plant in Austria carried out through a shareholder programme. The 10.44 kWp system was installed in 1995. It was financed by 68 shareholders and the company Feistritzwerke GmbH, which also coordinated the shareholder programme. This project made it possible for environmentally engaged people to own a share of a PV power plant.

At the beginning sales of share certificates were slow, but the project manager put a lot of effort into this area and a high profile advertising campaign was launched. This led to a lot of interest in participation by the local population. About 2500 people obtained information about photovoltaics and 68 bought shares which financed 80% of the total costs. The remaining 20% was financed by the Feistritzwerke utility company.

When the shareholders of the PV power plant were surveyed half of them indicated that they had changed positively their attitude towards energy use and nearly 80% of them had taken energy saving measures in order to use energy more efficiently.

The solar tree – the new symbol of Gleisdorf – was built in 1998 with a capacity of 7 kWp and was connected to the public electricity grid. It stands in the ‘solar street’ – a 3.5 km long street section where about 80 objects are powered by photovoltaics, such as a public solar clock, advertising boards and street lights.

Solar cells have also been used for art and the solar tree is one of these examples. It is 17.3 metres high and consists of a 12,700 kg solid steel sculpture in the form of a tree with five branches holding 140 solar panels.

The tree generates approximately 6650 kWh of electricity annually which can supply about 70 city streetlights in the centre of Gleisdorf. The solar tree promotes energy awareness and connects the elements of art, solar technology, city organisation and planning together in one project.

The role of the municipality

The city government takes positive measures to support renewable energy in the city and works closely with the Feistritzwerke utility, which partly belongs to the city municipality. Most of the PV systems in the solar street have been financed by the utility.

The city government has made a decision that in the future PV, solar thermal and biomass plants must be installed in all new public buildings. Retrofits at older public buildings have also been made within the renewable energies programme.

For private building owners there is a free but obligatory consulting interview with a representative of the utility company for everyone who wants to plan a new building. In these interviews the possible application of renewable energies are reviewed and the size of the requested/needed facility is discussed. This service is used by 30–50 homeowners annually.

The city government provides subsidies for solar thermal systems, but not PV systems. This means that solar thermal plants are more attractive than a PV system to a home owner. A very limited amount of subsidy for PV is available from the provincial government of Styria. A top up of the feed-in-tariff is available, but only 200 kWp is subsidized per year, so only a few people obtain this subsidy. The funds for one year are exhausted within ten minutes of the appropriation. There is also an investment subsidy from the government of the province Styria which provides a maximum of a2000 per PV system. However, this amount is generally too low to make PV systems very attractive to private householders.

The actions of the municipality have been rewarded and reinforced by various national and international energy-awards and environmental protection awards. The city government also recognizes the economic benefits of the city’s renewable reputation. Economic benefits include a renewable energy exhibition which takes place once a year. Many domestic companies are based in the region Gleisdorf/Weiz and are specially promoted. An international solar symposium also takes place in Gleisdorf every two years which is seen as a general economic incentive for the region.

Furthermore, there is also a local ‘SOLAR ELECTRICITY for schools’ campaign in which each school is supplied with a trackable PV power system, if they are customers of the local utility. This system looks like a solar wheel and is a triple tracked on-grid PV system. It allows teachers and pupils to operate their own solar power plant and lets the pupils investigate solar power and simultaneously learn some practical physics.

Case study prepared by: Demet Suna & Christoph Schiener of EEG
You can contact Demet Suna at suna@eeg.tuwien.ac.at

Other Case Studies Available

France: Grand Lyon – ZAC Hauts de Feuilly, Grand Lyon – La Darnaise, Grand-Lyon ZAC Lyon, Confluence

Germany:Freiburg – Schlierberg Solar Estate, Cologne-Wahn, Berlin

Netherlands: ‘City of the Sun’ in the HAL region, Nieuwland

UK: Croydon, London, Kirklees, Barrow waterfront development

For more information visit PV Upscale

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