More grants, lower costs spark interest in solar

DELIA, Alta. — It took some arm-twisting to convince Bob Sargent to install solar panels on his farm.

However, the central Alberta farmer now plans to triple the number of solar panels generating electricity on his farm.

“I’m really happy. It has been really good for me,” said Sargent, who farms near Delia.

Four years ago, officials at Starland County encouraged farmers to install panels as a way to kick start renewable energy projects in the municipality. They convinced Sargent, a county councillor, to be a guinea pig for the alternative technology.

“I’ve done dumber things,” said Sargent, who has two 10-kilowatt panels on two locations that power five shops, three houses and cattle waters.

Sargent produces more power than he can use during the sunny summer and sells the excess onto the grid for a credit. In the fall and winter, when aeration fans are running continuously, his solar power helps defray the $1,500 a month power bill.

Sargent estimates that he generates $500 worth of electricity from the solar panels. He originally thought it would take 10 to 12 years to pay back the cost of the solar system, but great sunlight, good initial power pricing and no maintenance costs could reduce that to six or seven years.

The provincial government’s new Growing Forward 2 program is designed to encourage Alberta farmers and municipalities to adopt solar technology, and Sargent plans to add another 10 kilowatts of solar panels to one of his farm sites.

The program would pay $4,500 for each 10 kW system, or one-quarter of the costs.

Sargent said 30 kW of solar electricity generation would reduce his monthly electricity bill by two-thirds. Under existing regulations, farms cannot generate more electricity on the farm than they use in a year.

Barry Mason of Delia installed an eight kW system on the roof of his farm shop three years ago for $28,000.

“They’re pretty expensive,” said Mason, who knew little about solar energy before he installed the panels. “I was pretty green when I started.”

The panels are mounted 25 feet in the air on the ridge of his farm shop, which means they are out of the way but also out of reach when covered in snow.

Mason’s power bill in December was $700, much of it being administrative, distribution and the other costs associated with a power bill.

He’s now looking into installing a battery bank, which with the addition of more solar panels would allow him to cut his connection to the electrical grid and eliminate his bills completely.

“I’d like to expand. I might add it to the side of the building.”

Helping lower the initial cost of the solar panels was key to the program’s acceptance, said Jordan Webber, economic development officer for the county.

This included a $5,000 grant from the county and green electricity companies.

Webber hopes 10 farmers a year will start adopting solar electricity.

There isn’t a trip to the coffee shop when someone doesn’t ask Sargent about the panels.

“It’s got people thinking now,” he said.

Webber believes farmers’ land base and long-term view make them a natural fit for solar.

Rob Harlan, executive director of the Solar Energy Society of Alberta, agreed.

“We have a lot of space,” he told a group of farmers at a solar conference in Ferintosh.

“There are lots of big barn roofs facing south, and there are a lot of opportunities.”

Harlan has been a lifelong solar believer who lived off the grid in California for 25 years. He now teaches solar energy classes at MacEwan University in Edmonton and travels across the province teaching solar classes.

“I have a passion for solar.”

The cost of solar power panels has dropped in the United States from $5 a watt in 1990 to 69 cents in 2014. Prices in Canada are $1.03 to $1.30 per watt. The most common 250-watt panel costs about $300.

Germany is considered the model for solar generation.

In 2000, the German government backed bank loans to encourage the sector and now has the largest solar generation capacity in the world with 35 gigawatts of solar generation capacity. Eleven percent of that capacity comes from farmers.

Germany produces twice as much capacity from solar than all of the electricity produced in Alberta. The most electricity ever used in Alberta was 11 gW.

Alberta now has nine megawatts of solar capacity, which is barely a blip in the electricity generation.

Harlan said Alberta is at a crossroads. It can follow Germany’s lead with solar panels installed on homes, farms and factories across the country or it can have centralized solar farms covering acres of land.

Alberta’s first solar farm is planned for Starland County. The paperwork is complete and the new generation co-op has started to raise the $6.8 million that is required.

“We’re hoping Alberta does both,” said Harlan.

Seventy-five percent of the population of large centres don’t have the ability to connect to solar because of trees or they live in a condo. Harlan hopes solar panels can be built on schools and other large buildings and be owned co-operatively as one more way to increase solar use.

“Why can’t small producers group together to access powerful pricing?” he said. “That would help the economics of solar.”

The provincial government has set a goal of producing 30 percent of its energy from renewable sources within the next 14 years.

Alberta’s dry climate and low humidity, make it one of the best places for solar energy. Harlan said long days and bright summer sun as well as sunny winters are ideal conditions, and solar efficiency increases as the temperature drops.

“Photovoltaic’s like it cold.”

Every 1 C drop in temperature produces a .38 percent increase in solar efficiency.

Alberta’s poorest locations for solar energy are better than any location in Germany because of extensive sun, cold temperatures and low humidity.

As well, the price of solar is dropping quickly.

Sargent originally paid $33,000 to mount regular solar panels on the side of his shop Another kind, shaped in a series of Ws and de-signed to be 30 percent more efficient, cost $40,000.

The price has now dropped to $21,000 to $27,000, depending on the installation, without any tax incentives or grants.

Sargent was paid 15 cents a kilowatt hour as part of a green pricing incentive program when he first installed the panels.

However, the program lasted for only a year, and he was the only farmer who received the high prices before the existing electricity suppliers ended them. He is now paid eight cents a kW.

It hasn’t always been easy to connect to the electricity grid in Alberta.

The game changer for alternative energy in the province was 2008 legislation that no longer required small micro-generation producers to do the same paperwork as the builders of a coal fired power plant.

In 1995, Starland County and its administrator, Ross Rawlusyk, wanted to hook the water pumping station for three villages to solar power.

There was a 60-step regulatory approval process to connect solar power system to the grid and another 18 steps to sell excess electricity. Atco, the county’s energy supplier, sent it a 700-page file on how to connect to the grid.

The solar panels for the pumping station cost $250,000 in 1996, but the same panels would now cost $27,000.

“It brought a lot of value and education. I am not sure it will ever pay for itself,” said Webber.

Three water pumping stations, one municipal shop, a municipal office and a water plant are now hooked up to solar power.

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