Environment » Sustainability & Innovation

Is the future of solar finally starting to brighten?

Lower equipment costs and innovative new projects are starting to make headway into the mainstream energy mix.

When the first issue of Harrowsmith magazine hit the newsstands nearly 40 years ago, it seemed to many that we were on the verge of a revolution in energy. And while that still hasn’t happened, advances on both thinking and technology mean that dream is closer now than ever before.

But economics have thwarted many attempts over the ensuing years, particularly here in Canada, where relatively cheap energy alternatives have slowed the adoption of solar significantly. On a limited income, most people will look after their immediate needs before standing back to look at the bigger picture.

While many Canadians were busy with other things, the cost of solar has dropped dramatically, by no less than 99 per cent between 1977 and 2013, according to CleanTechnica, a US based renewable energies Web site. The majority of that drop, 75 per cent, has taken place since 2008, due in large part to the arrival of less expensive Chinese built photovoltaic panels. But those panels do have their critics.

“While many Canadians were busy with other things, the cost of solar has dropped dramatically, by no less than 99 per cent between 1977 and 2013.”

“We’ve found that when you install the cheaper panels they don’t perform as well, and people tend to have more problems with them,” said Stéphane Bessette, a plumber and solar installer in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. “Also, the panels may be cheaper, but the installation process is still the same, so installation costs aren’t coming down in the same way.”

However as the cost of other forms of energy start to rise, the economics are beginning to shift. Germany, which has pledged to phase out nuclear energy by 2022, boasts the top solar production per capita, despite the fact that many developed countries get more sunlight. Canada ranks #22 globally.

Other countries are climbing aboard the renewable energy bandwagon: Denmark has set an ambitious goal of meeting all of its energy needs with renewable resources by 2055; Brazil is working on reversing deforestation, and is harnessing hydro and wind power to meet more of its energy needs; China, which emits 6 000 million tons of CO2 per year, is actively working to reduce its use of fossil fuels and has emerged as a major producer of solar panels and other renewable energy technologies.

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Despite Canada’s relatively modest ranking, it’s not like there’s nothing going on: In September 2010 the Sarnia Photovoltaic Power Plant in Sarnia, Ontario held the title as the world’s largest sun-powered producer of electricity, with an installed capacity of 97 megawatts. The US has since topped that with the Agua Caliente Solar Project in Yuma County Arizona, with its 247-megawatt facility capable of powering 12,000 homes.

Then there are a number of solar thermal plants springing up from Arizona to Spain that use molten salt to operate power turbines.

Meanwhile one project in Saskatchewan is, pardon the pun, empowering an Aboriginal community. The First Nations Power Authority (FNPA) of Saskatchewan is teaming up with Lockheed Martin Canada and the economic development arm of the File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council to use solar energy for much of a Swift Current hotel’s power needs.

The power system built for the hotel is specifically designed for not only harsh and blustery Prairie weather conditions, but for taking the best possible advantage of the high radiation in southern Saskatchewan, which is increasingly recognized as Canada’s solar capital.

Meanwhile solar is providing individuals with greater options: While early proponents of solar power may have envisioned solar panels powering every home, many small-scale systems and “microgrids” use a variety of inputs: solar, wind, passive and active geothermal, to provide a steady supply of power.

And when it comes to remote locales, solar, wind and other green technologies may even be more economical than traditional energy inputs. That’s what happened when Will and Bev Eert, who when they moved from BC to a rural area near Rossendale, Manitoba, were faced with the choice of spending $60,000 to connect to the provincial power utility, or spend half that amount and go off-grid with solar. In fact in remote locations some 50,000 Canadian homes and cottages rely on solar and wind, because it’s cheaper than paying to string up power lines from the main power grid.

But even urban homeowners can take advantage of the sun’s rays. A number of provincial power authorities have introduced so-called feed-in tariff programs, where rooftop panels feed power into the grid when the sun is out, and the homeowner can draw power from the grid as needed. While it might not mean power self-sufficiency, it does save homeowners the added expense of purchasing banks of batteries to store their solar energy until needed.

Nevertheless, the economics of solar are starting to bring new business models into place. In the US Solar City Corp. has seen its share prices skyrocket since putting them on the market in December 2012. The company installs solar panels on residential roofs, then signs long-term energy purchase agreements with the homeowners. The customer pays less for their power, while Solar City makes a profit over the long term compared to traditional grid rates.

Then there’s the Indiegogo campaign to raise investment for Solar Roadways. Proponents say the technology would turn our paved roads into giant solar collectors, while critics point out a host of perceived shortcomings.

While entrepreneurs seek the perfect way to make solar cheap, easy and attractive to consumers, policy support from the various levels of government is still lacking, which means solar is forced to compete with a heavily subsidized fossil fuel industry. According to a CanSIA report, on a global basis in 2009, renewable energy received $1 in government support for every $5 to $6 given to conventional energy.

And while on the surface support for solar energy may seem like a no-brainer, it does have its opponents. In April 2014 farmers took to their tractors to protest a solar farm being built near Wyebridge, Ontario. Opponents were critical of the project for two main reasons: The planned site was on 90 acres of working farmland that had been producing crops the previous year; secondly, the protesters felt that issues concerning stray voltage from the 11.5 megawatt solar panel project were not properly addressed. Stray voltage has been a problem for dairy and other livestock herds for about 20 years. It can occur at low levels between cows and metal floors and equipment, according to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food.

“While on the surface support for solar energy may seem like a no-brainer, it does have its opponents.”

“It goes into the ground and into the water and creates an unpleasant “buzzing” in cows’ mouths,” said Kevin Wood, a fourth-generation dairy farmer who lives on a neighbouring property. This means cows are less motivated to drink water and can get dehydrated.

Solar Panel Field

Along with stopping the project, the protesters want Ontario’s Green Energy Act revised to give local municipalities and landowners a greater say in where green energy projects are established. As this Almanac was going to press, local farmers and the project’s promoters were still at odds.

But as the song said, the times they are a changing. Alternative energies are gaining increasing attention, spurred on by various initiatives including projects to curb coal burning electrical plants in the US by President Barak Obama. A report released by the US Department of Energy claims things are indeed changing.

“In 2012, rooftop solar panels cost about 1% of what they did 35 years ago, and since 2008, total U.S. solar PV deployment has jumped by about 10 times – from about 735 megawatts to over 7200 megawatts,” says the report Revolution Now: The future arrives for four clean energy technologies. “But today we are in the midst of a generational shift to solar energy. Falling costs for solar power mean that the infinite power of the sun is increasingly within reach for the average American homeowner or business.”

And just possibly within the realm of becoming a fixture on urban and rural rooftops alike.