Light at the end of the power bill

On or off the grid? Expert advises a combination of solar energy and grid power

STETTLER, Alta. — It was the sight of their power bill that drove Harry Brook and his wife to build an energy efficient, solar powered house that was off the electrical grid.

“I feel a little smug when I say, ‘I don’t pay any power bills,’ ” said Brook, who lives near Stettler.

An Alberta energy bill is a combination of energy distribution fees, wire service provider fees, administrative fees and energy consumption, which actually makes up a small portion of the bill.

“It drives my blood pressure up when I used to see the bills,” Brook said at a Solar Energy workshop.

Brook estimates it will take 25 years to pay off his $30,000 system of modules, inverters and batteries, but it was more of a “philosophical than practical” decision to go off the grid.

He said using solar energy for electricity will be a natural choice for many Albertans as the price of energy increases and the cost of solar modules decreases.

“You will never have a power outage.”

Brook recommended that families examine their power consumption before looking at alternative energy solutions. He uses an electrical flow meter to determine which appliances are sucking energy.

“I used to be a big believer in buying used appliances,” he said. “I am now a believer in buying appliances to get the most efficiency possible. The best dollars spent is conservation.”

The water and sewer pumps are big electrical draws for the Brooks.

“I’m conscious every time my wife washes and dries her hair. I hope the sun is out. Having solar makes you hyper aware of your power consumption,” he said.

“Conservation is really important.”

Brook has mounted eight, 215-watt Sanyo solar modules on a single pole to help reduce the amount of snow sticking to the panels in winter.

Brook stores energy in two 2,200-pound batteries with 67 kilowatts of storage. It’s adequate during the summer when the sun is out but in the winter is supplemented by a diesel generator.

Not everyone is buying into the idea of going off the grid.

Werner Strohhaecker of Daysland, Alta., said it seemed like just another job.

“It’s completely out to lunch for farmers.”

He said he would rather use the money on extra insulation or buy more energy efficient livestock waterers.

Tony and Clara Nibourg of Halkirk, Alta., have an array of solar modules to help offset the cost of electricity on their farm. Last year their 38-module system generated 13 megawatts of energy. Some was used on the farm for watering their 400 head of cattle, welding and other farm operations. The rest was sold back to the province’s electrical system.

They were paid 15 cents a kilowatt for the electricity they generated when the system was first installed, but new provincial rules have dropped that to 7.25 cents per kilowatt. His last monthly farm bill was $56.

“We didn’t look into off grid. It’s a job if it’s off the grid,” said Clara.

“It’s an extra simple system.”

Gordon Howell, a solar energy expert who develops, designs and commissions the installation of solar electrical systems, said the combination of solar energy and staying on the grid is the easiest and most efficient combination.

He recommended that novices buy a $3,000 low-cost system and add solar PV modules as money and enthusiasm allows.

There are now 780 solar systems in Alberta and 30,000 in Canada, and the market is growing by 50 percent a year as technology develops and prices drop.

Howell said solar PV modules now cost about $1 per watt, while inverters, which are required to convert energy from DC to AC, cost 55 cents to $1 a watt. An entire system can cost $2.80 to $4 per watt.

A $40,000 system 10 years ago now costs $9,000 and has a payback of less than 15 years.

Howell has lots of graphs and formulas for placing modules for maximum efficiency, but he recommended placing the modules on an existing house roof or barn.

“Stick it on the cheapest angle and get it on there.”

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