COP26 might be postponed but “climate action cannot wait”

Our Climate Champions 2020: Melani Furlan.

Five years on from the signing of the Paris Agreement at COP21, and at the end of one of the most difficult years for climate action in recent history, in this series we celebrate five individuals that remind us of the power of the people in the climate movement.

The social and economic impacts of the COVID19 crisis are already affecting millions of people across Europe, raising questions among governments about postponing sustainable regulations and climate goals. But for Melani Furlan, “climate action cannot wait”.

Melani is an electrical engineer, and during her studies at the Faculty of Electrical engineering in Zagreb she developed a passion for renewable energy sources and distributed generation, a technology that contributes to tackling the climate crisis.

Croatia had just 69 MW of total solar photovoltaic capacity installed by the end of 2019, which covers only one to two percent of the total energy consumption in the household sector. “We’re one of the countries that uses our potential the least,” says Melani. One of her first jobs was to bring renewable electricity to households living in remote areas with UNDP Croatia. Today, she is leading SOL4ALL, a project that aims to accelerate the transformation and regeneration of cities in Croatia through a community-led solar revolution.

Crucial need for a green recovery

Croatia has one of the highest unemployment rates in all of the European Union (7.11 per cent in 2020), so the SOL4ALL team designed a programme that would also contribute to tackling unemployment caused by the COVID-19 crisis. The team received funding from the EIT Crisis Response Initiative this year, which will help them in achieving their goal of powering 1,000 homes in ten cities with solar PV systems. The project is led by ZEZ, a Croatian organisation that fosters the development of energy cooperatives and could lead to the creation of up to 8,000 local green jobs annually and build resilience in many communities.

Despite the national restrictions to avoid the spread of COVID-19, the SOL4ALL team managed to organise a Good Energy Tour in September to educate citizens and promote the use of renewable energy sources, with a focus on solar PV for households. “We know the importance of direct communication when it comes to climate and energy awareness, so we were meeting citizens in city squares. We tried to answer all their questions and concerns about the use of solar energy, and we realised that the topic attracted a really big public interest,” says Melani.

Going digital 

In addition to these in-person meetings, COVID-19 forced the team to move online, which was really for the best. “We launched an online platform in October, it’s a digital tool where citizens can become part of the first cooperative procurement of solar PV systems in Croatia, which makes the procurement and installation of quality equipment more affordable, and where they can receive full support from the ZEZ team and our trusted solar entrepreneurs at every step of implementation of their PV system.”

About 30,000 people visited the online platform within a month, and the team has already received more than 600 expressions of interest, from citizens who want to install their own solar PV system. If people are so keen to hear more about owning their own energy systems, it’s because it has immediate benefits. “They will see the difference in the first bill they receive once the solar PV systems have been installed on their roofs,” explains Melani. Citizens are also enthusiastic to be in control of where their energy comes from.

Since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, climate change awareness has slowly grown in Croatia. “There are more projects coming from the academic and research space, but there is not much campaigning around the issue”, explains Melani. Through the direct interaction they have with citizens, the SOL4ALL team hopes to contribute to raise awareness in the country. “We always stress the benefits that installing solar PV systems will have on the local community, the country and the planet, but the most important aspect for people remains their direct benefits.” Still, people are always pleasantly surprised to learn that what they are doing for themselves contributes to a bigger goal.

For a rather small organisation like ZEZ, which counts 20 people today, the yearly UN climate conference is a big opportunity. The team had a booth to present the cooperative at COP23 in Bonn. “We came back really inspired, and with a lot of contacts to start future collaboration with,” explains Melani, who is now looking forward to COP26 in Glasgow.

In the meantime, the SOL4ALL will continue to work on the community-led solar revolution they have just started. “We need to build a brand-new business model for solar energy,” says Melani. “And it needs to have community as its core.” For the engineer, this could potentially transform the stagnating market of solar energy in Croatia. “If the country wants to achieve its climate and energy goals, solar deployment needs a real boost.”

 
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