Sunburst: November 2019

Solar World Congress Delivers Key Message on Addressing Social Issues with Renewable Energy


Just days before the launch of our Solar World Congress 2019 in Chile, serious civil unrest broke out in Santiago and other major cities.  The unrest was stimulated by a metro fare hike, which may have seemed small to many of us, but became a stark symbol of the significant income inequality that exists in Chile, and the government’s passivity in addressing this inequality. The unrest was at times violent, and sadly dozens of Chileans lost their lives and hundreds more suffered debilitating injuries.  Untold millions of dollars in damage was wreaked upon critical public facilities such as metro stations, banks, and stores.

ISES together with our Congress partner, the IEA Solar Heating and Cooling Programme, and our local hosts in Chile, struggled with how best to respond to the situation. Of course, the safety of our guests planning to attend the Congress were upmost in our mind, and we deliberated on a near-daily basis on whether and how to go forward with the Congress.  After the first week of unrest the government took steps to ameliorate the situation by beginning to address the many economic, political, and social demands of the protesters, removing the army from the streets, and eliminating the curfew.  Even so, the protests continued sporadically, but in Santiago were largely confined to the downtown area, and fortunately far removed from the location of the Congress venue.  For sure our local hosts, the Solar Energy Research Center (SERC) of Chile, who had put years of effort into organizing the Congress, considered every possible scenario if the Congress were to go forward, with safety being the tantamount consideration.

At the end the decision was made unanimously by the International and Local Organizing Committees to go forward with the Congress, although we continued to monitor the situation carefully right up to the Congress launch and throughout the week’s activities. And, despite the perceived risks portrayed by the international news media, I am pleased to say that the Congress was a big success with over 400 attendees representing 48 countries, and with virtually no disruptions. Only a few registrants cancelled due to concerns over the civil unrest.

Two government ministers, The Hon. Juan Carlos Juvet, the Minister of Energy, and the Hon. Andres Couve, Minister of Science and Technology, spoke at the Opening Ceremony about the civil unrest, how it is being addressed by the government, and why it was so important to Chileans that the Congress went forward, given the importance and urgency of renewable energy deployments in Chile and throughout South America. 

Reflecting on the situation, my Opening Ceremony comments were similar to the column I wrote for this newsletter last month, and captured in the Congress Declaration:  Civil unrest has taken the form of violent protests in many places, with citizens taking a stand in multitudes of countries against income inequalities and unwanted foreign influences.  The creation of wealth and prosperity powered by fossil fuels over the past two centuries has also contributed to growing income disparities, energy injustice, and major environmental threats, especially climate change.  And now, as we see in Chile and elsewhere, people are striking back in a number of ways, and a global revolution is taking place to fight income and social inequalities, environmental crises, and the governments’ inaction to adequately address these issues. 

I emphasized that one solution to the social crises is how we transform the way we produce and consume energy. Historically the industrial revolution was fueled by fossil energy resources that served population centers from centralized generating facilities feeding energy over long distances. Despite the many conveniences offered by this approach, it left most people without any choices over who provides their energy, and the source of this energy.  In all too many cases certain populations were excluded entirely from the industrial revolution that was powered by fossil energy.  But recently this traditional model has begun to be transformed into a renewables-based distributed system. This transformation provides much greater energy access with many more people having a much greater say as to how their energy is produced and used. This transformation in turn leads to energy justice and environmental recovery and improvement. This “power to the people model” can also lead the way to reduced income and social inequities.

I went on to say that the urgency for this energy transformation has been made ever more apparent with the dire challenges we face in the climate crisis, which, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, can become untenable within the next 30 years, and catastrophic by the end of this century, if we do not bring all energy-related carbon dioxide emissions down to net zero by mid-century. This is the driver of the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, and a major theme of this Congress.

There is good news: by the end of 2018 twenty-six percent of the world’s electricity supply was being powered by clean, sustainable renewable power.  Roughly ten percent of that power is coming from solar photovoltaic systems, with over 500 GW of solar PV installed and operating around the world, both as centralized stations but also, and most importantly, as distributed systems like rooftop solar on residential and commercial buildings and off-grid solar home systems. But much work remains.  As populations raise their voices about economic inequality, lack of energy security, and the threats to our environment caused by the use of fossil fuels, a shift to clean, locally sourced renewable energy will offer a major step towards a more equitable economy, energy justice, and mitigation of the climate crisis we are now facing.  The time for this transformation is now; it is vitally urgent. And this is why we all gathered in Santiago on 4-7 November to learn how solar and renewable energy technologies are the backbone of this transformation.

Looking back, there was widespread support for holding this first-of-its-kind Congress in South America despite the prevailing civil unrest. A powerful and important message about the role renewable technologies will play in achieving a more equitable and democratic future was delivered. 

I want to give a special thank you to our local organizing committee, the Solar Energy Research Center, specifically Rodrigo Palma, Roberto Román, Jose-Miguel Cardimal, Ana Maria Ruz, and Camila Santibáñez, and our local and international sponsors and supporters. 

In particular, I want to give Roberto Román a special call-out: he has been a long-time member and special friend of the ISES Board and the solar community, and the vision of this Congress being hosted in Santiago has been a vision of his for many years.  He worked steadfastly to bring this Congress to fruition; and his vision and hard work was crucial for bringing us all together in Santiago.

This article was written by:

Dr. David Renné

ISES Immediate Past President