Sun power: a bright idea

Don Pettit

 

Using sunlight to make electricity is a trend that is accelerating world wide, and it’s set to take hold in the Peace Country too. Since Peace Energy Coop began selling solar equipment, the inquiries have been coming in fast and strong, with half a dozen whole-house systems moving ahead ASAP—and that’s just from word-of-mouth!

This Watt’s column will be dedicated to giving some global perspective on this sudden power shift to solar, and then I’ll explain some basic options for solar at your home, business or remote cabin.

GLOBAL POWER SHIFT

Around the world, investors moved $224 billion into renewables last year, the second largest total ever. A record 115 gigawatts (115 thousand million watts) of clean juice came online (mostly wind, followed by solar). That’s more than new fossil fuel and nuclear sources combined!

In the US, the “clean economy” now provides more direct jobs than the fossil fuel industry. Direct solar jobs alone supplied some 120,000 jobs (up 27 per cent in just two years), more than in steel-making or coal-mining.

Over one million homes in Australia and another million in Europe now sport solar power arrays (photovoltaic or PV for short) on their roofs, feeding into their local power grids and being paid for the power they produce. They are not just consumers of electricity, they are now producers. That’s a big, fundamental change. Darn near a solar revolution!

GRID-TIED SOLAR

This is the simplest way to go solar. A PV array on you roof, shed, garage, or on a rack in your backyard feeds power to a gadget at the house called an “inverter” that changes the DC power from the PV panels to AC, and feeds it into the grid through your electrical meter.

If you have a new “smart meter” it will automatically track how much power you put in and how much you take out. At the end of the year, if you have made more than you have used, you get paid for the difference. The rest accumulates as a credit against your regular power bills.

Different provinces pay different prices for solar power. In BC, (at the moment) we get paid 10 cents per kilowatt hour, a bit more than we are charged for the power we use. Nova Scotia, Ontario and Saskatchewan pay much more for clean solar power ­ up to three or four times the BC rate.

The best thing about grid-tie, besides being paid for your power, is that you don’t need a battery system to store power for when the sun isn’t shining: you are basically storing excess power in the grid itself, and then withdrawing your “energy deposit” when you need it (at night, in the dark of winter, etc.)

As an option, you can also add a battery bank to a grid-tied system, which will provide power to lights, freezers, furnace fans, computers or other critical systems for a certain period of time, from hours to days, should the grid go down. This is especially good for businesses, where even a few hours of grid failure and shut-down can be expensive.

OFF-GRID SOLAR

If you are off-grid (cabin, cottage or remote home not connected to the hydro grid) then a battery bank is not optional but a necessity. Off-grid, you rely on your batteries for power whenever the sun isn’t shining. It is usually sized to run everything in your cottage or remote home for a few days, assuming the sun will top it up.

To run a small cottage or cabin, the battery bank and PV array can be small, and added to over time if needed. To run a whole off-grid house with all the utilities and gadgets, the battery bank and PV array have to be large. A back-up generator, which can come on automatically if the batteries get low, is usually a good idea for large off-grid homes, just to be safe.

On-grid or off, PV systems are flexible: they can be sized to meet specific needs and budgets, and they can start small and be expanded over time.

We have an excellent solar resource in the Peace Region. Solar is making sense all around the world, and its making sense here too.