Watt’s Happening: Solar – another Site C alternative

Don Pettit


Proponents often present the Site C project as the only answer to our impending energy crisis – in the lame and stunningly misleading words of a certain energy minister, we need Site C “to power all those electric cars that David Suzuki wants.”

In the last issue, we looked at wind power as an alternative to Site C, and concluded, with simple common sense calculation that the Site C equivalent in wind power would cost about half that of the mega-dam, and would have about one quarter of the physical footprint. Wind would also be developed by private investors rather than taxpayers, a real win-win.

Now lets look at another common sense, squeaky-clean energy source that BC has in abundance: solar power.


The average energy received on Earth from the Sun is tremendous – about 1,350 watts per square metre. Day in and day out, the Sun bathes the Earth with almost 100 million billion watts of radiation, as it has done for 4.5 billion years. This solar energy powers the Earth as we know it: almost everything that lives is solar powered, and all of our weather. Think of the energy in a hurricane! That’s big solar.

Can we directly harvest this vast, unending source of free energy? Certainly, and we have been doing so for some thirty years.

Solar electric panels use a thin layer of crystalline silicon to magically convert photons of light directly into electrons of electricity. No moving parts to repair, no polluting fuel to burn, extremely long-life with nothing to wear out or get used up. Sweet.

Solar panels used to be really expensive, but not now. The price has plummeted to close to $1 per watt, down from $15 per watt just a few years ago. Could solar power cost-effectively replace the “need” for Site C? Sure it could.


Last issue we used what is known as the power capacity factor (PCF) of various energy sources to help us fairly compare one to the other. The PCF is the power that an energy source REALLY puts out allowing for downtime. The PCF for hydro is 60% (a BC Hydro figure), Peace Country wind about 30%, and solar-electric about 15%.

If we generously assume that Site C will cost the projected $8 billion with no overruns (ha!), and a 60% PCF, we get a cost of about $13 per operational watt.

Cost of solar? My personal 5-kilowatt solar power system, installed in late 2013, cost $17,000 for everything: solar panels, rooftop rack system, grid-tie inverter, and all labour. For a 15% PCF, that works out to about $20 per operational watt. More than Site C.

But what if BC Hydro paid just half of the cost of each solar installation? I know, having worked with Peace Energy Cooperative, that many folks are ready to produce their own independent power but would welcome a bit of help to do so. They like that solar will pay for itself by completely or mostly eliminating their electrical bills, add value to their property, require little or no maintenance, no fuel costs, will last for 50 years plus and give them a real sense of independence. After all, they end up owning the solar asset, so if Hydro paid for some of the up-front costs, almost everybody would go for it.

So if Hydro subsidized about half of each rooftop solar array, for the cost of Site C we could have one million, 5-kilowatt grid-tied solar roofs across our province, at a cost of $10 per operational watt – less than Site C.

And physical footprint? Well, probably zero, with all those empty roofs waiting to be covered with solar panels!

This is possible. Lots of other countries, provinces and states are encouraging rooftop solar with subsidies (Japan installed one million solar roofs last year!), and getting the long-term jobs and manufacturing that a vibrant solar economy attracts.

We can too, while providing direct benefit to one million home owners and small businesses and saving 9000 hectares of rich and wonderful Peace River valley from flooding and destruction.

Yes, in the 21st century there really are better ways to make electricity.