This is just a sample of the great stories available in our 2016 Get Set For Summer issue!
By Marty Seto
In an effort to live a greener, more environmentally friendly lifestyle, I had solar panels installed on my home’s roof in 2012. This complemented my efforts for my home as I was already recycling rainwater to water the lawn and garden.
Grasshopper Solar handled the installation as part of the Ontario FIT Program. I found out about this program from an ad I saw online. The FIT program is an Ontario government initiative that allows property owners to generate electricity on their rooftops and properties and sell it to their local hydro company to pay for the equipment costs. Known as a feed-in tariff, this arrangement offered by the FIT program offers a guaranteed rate for all the power generated for a 20-year period.
Working with Grasshopper Solar, there were no start-up costs, and as the homeowner, I would receive $8400 over 20 years as my share of the revenue generated by the solar panels. The rest of the money earned would go to paying for the installation. After 20 years, I would own the panels outright and receive all further revenue generated from this point on.
I applied for the program in 2012. The FIT program has a fixed quota each year for the amount of power generated that they will buy, so not all homes are approved. Grasshopper Solar came to my house to take solar readings to see if my house would be good candidate for the program and I was approved for the project.
Grasshopper Solar installed a $30,000 3 kw-h solar system on my roof, including 12 panels (facing south) and an additional meter to see how much power was being created and fed back to the grid. I would be paid 80 cents for each kilowatt-hour generated, and this would be used to pay for the equipment. This was in 2012, when solar panels were more expensive to buy; today, with costs being lower for the same equipment, homeowners can expect 30 cents per kw-h.
In 2014, solar energy accounted for 27% of my home’s needs. Looking at the bigger picture, if a home can power 27% of their needs through solar, that would be a substantial savings on the power grid. Considering that residential demand for power in Canada makes up 29%, we can potentially move 7% of total energy consumption to solar. This may enable power grids to phase out coal, as it is generates 14% of power in Canada. (Currently, 58% of power is generated by hydro, according to the Canadian Electricity Association.) So the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) goal of generating 16% of the world’s electricity through solar by 2050 is not unreasonable.
Not all home rooftops are ideal for solar power, however, according to Natural Resources Canada (NRC). Due to increased cloud coverage, the coastal areas experience a lower yield, while central regions experience a higher yield. Still, the NRC department estimates that 50% of residential requirements can be met by installing solar panels on the roof of residential buildings. That’s a big number considering my home generated only 27% of the house’s power and not all homes are candidates for solar power. It’s a goal worth reaching for, however, as a side benefit of installing solar panels on roofs is the wise use of space and the fact that it saves valuable farmland from solar farms that are being built which are looked upon as eyesores on the country landscape.
So why haven’t more of my neighbors installed solar roofs? Only one other house put up solar panels in my neighborhood since I did it in 2012. Some of the concerns have been roof repairs when solar panels are on top; uncertainty about solar panel disposal when they are obsolete after 20+ years; and the lack of knowledge about the FIT program. Some couldn’t see the value in it, and thought it was a lot of hassle for little monetary return. There were also concerns that solar panels on garage roofs would alter the streetscape of our neighborhood in a negative way. During the installation stage, we had solar panels planned for the garage roof, but after talking with my neighbour, we decided against it as he did not want to look at solar panels, so I had solar panels installed only on the top roof, out of view.
For me, the experience was well worth it. The question remains, though: How are we going to reach these lofty renewable energy goals without subsidies and taxpayers footing the bill? At 80 cents per kw-h, Ontario’s FIT program is paying more than the average homeowner (16 cents per kw-h). That’s been a major criticism of the program and is not sustainable over the long term.
Perhaps we need another approach, like having solar panels put in the building code for all new construction. One thing is for sure, while solar power’s benefits have been well documented, our energy policy needs a reliable power grid to manage peak demand periods of electricity consumption. Power companies need to be able to get access to power on demand and solar cannot deliver that when it is subject to weather conditions, while other sources like hydro, gas-fired plants and nuclear can be turned off and on as power is required. Currently, Canada has a surplus of electricity and exports 50 billion kw-h (50 gw-h) a year to the U.S. At the end, solar can only complement the system and cannot be relied upon as a core power source, especially in the winter months when only 3% of my home’s power was generated by solar.
In Germany, a world leader in solar power, they created a renewable energy market with a similar in-tariff system that the Ontario FIT program is emulating. This program was started in 1991 and renewable energy today accounts for 31% of their energy needs, with solar at 6.9%. But this has come at a cost, as renewable energy is more expensive to produce than other sources and needs to be subsidized. Homeowners are now paying a renewable energy surcharge of 6.2 cents per kw-h to pay for this high cost energy, which is facing heavy political criticism in Germany. It seems that the renewable energy effort needs more time to figure out what will work best for the consumer pocketbook and the environment.
Elsewhere, we’re seeing the creation of a net-metering system where market rates for electricity are used instead of a fixed rate like in Ontario for any power that goes back into the grid. This approach is being used in Saskatchewan, Quebec and Nova Scotia, with each province having a unique policy but similar framework. In these provinces, homeowners get a credit on their electricity bill for all the power fed back into the grid. For example, you can get a 20% capital cost rebate in Saskatchewan.
According to the 2015 Annual Report from the Canadian Electricity Association, between 2013 and 2014, the industry trade association of electric producers saw the use of coal decrease by 8.8% and renewable energy increase by 20% as a source of power. (Renewable accounted for 53% of the power that replaced coal power, with natural gas and nuclear making up the difference.) In the same period, sulphur dioxide emissions from all power sources decreased by 9.7% —from 241.52 thousand tonnes to 218.05 thousand tones. This would indicate that the switch to renewable sources is helping—especially when you consider that the reduction in sulphur dioxide emissions is equivalent to taking about 2,500 cars off the road.
In the end, through this phase of industry trial and error, the market will find and migrate to a low cost solution for green energy—it has to. Solar may seem an expensive and unreliable choice right now, but the alternative is also unsustainable. After all, the value of the environment? Priceless.