Environment drove switch to solar

Brent Veitch, of solar company Rock Paper Sun Ltd., left, and Joe Schmutz work behind the 24-panel solar array on the Schmutz acreage near Grandora, Sask. The panels are mounted on a treated wood frame as opposed to the usual steel.  |  Karen Briere photo

GRANDORA, Sask. — Tucked away in a woody 80 acres west of Saskatoon, Joe and Sheila Schmutz knew they wanted to add solar panels to their landscape.

In addition to their bungalow where they have lived since 1983, they have a shop and kennels where they raise Large Munsterlander hunting dogs.

All the buildings rely on electric heat. The couple also cuts wood from their land to feed a wood fireplace.

They wanted a more environmentally friendly option proceeded with their solar project in 2017.

“For us it was really sensible,” said Joe.

The now-retired university professors are members of the Saskatchewan Environmental Society and bought shares when the SES Solar Co-operative Ltd. was established.

But Sheila is quick to say their goal was not to bypass SaskPower.

“They think we want to be off the grid,” she said of most reactions to their decision. “We are actually very pro-SaskPower.”

The Schmutzes earlier installed a small solar water heater system on their home so had some experience with panels, and thought they could build the frame and attach the panels for their new solar project themselves.

Only one of three companies they contacted, Rock Paper Sun Ltd., would work with them on that condition.

The couple used annual electricity bills to figure out how much they would need in solar.

They settled on 24 panels at 340 watts each. The frame is treated lumber, rather than the typical steel.

The installation is tied into SaskPower’s system, which is a requirement, said Brent Veitch from Rock Paper Sun.

“If the grid goes down, the system stops producing,” he said. “It is for safety reasons.”

For example, if someone was checking the solar panels during an outage, and the system was still live, there could be a problem.

The cost estimate of $33,000 was cut to $26,000 through their own manpower.

A SaskPower rebate of $5,000, based on 20 percent of eligible costs, further cut the cost.

Joe said he calculated a 30 percent return on investment over the 25-year expected life of the project. This will vary depending on electricity rates and the performance of the system. The panels are guaranteed for 25 years; the DC/AC converters are under warranty for 20 years.

It should pay for itself in 16 years.

Joe tracks their power use and production through a website. It puts the power production in usable terms. For example, on a cold but sunny February day the 37.2-kilowatt hours produced is enough to run a fridge for eight days.

“My calculation is that we produce 82 percent of what we use,” he said.

SaskPower reads the meter once a month. The company’s net metering system means the couple will pay at the end of the year if they use more than they produce. If they produce more than they used, they don’t get paid, but Joe said they don’t have to rely on batteries and have the security of the power grid.

Plus, they are concerned about climate change and believe solar energy is part of the solution.

“We agree with people who say that climate change should be elevated to a concern for all countries,” he said.

Solar energy is a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet reduction targets, they say, and the government should find a way to help young families adopt the technology so they can benefit longer.

The carbon tax is one way to do that, said Joe.

Detractors have told them that solar won’t work in the cold Saskatchewan climate, but Veitch said heat has nothing to do with electrical production.

“Solar electric cells actually produce better the colder it gets,” he said.

Other concerns people raise include damage to the panels from weather or animals.

But the Schmutzes’ system has survived a significant hailstorm with no damage. None of the many deer that wander their property has damaged it either.

If they did, Sheila takes comfort from the fact that a broken panel is not high voltage.

“Our electric fence has more,” she said.

The couple’s next decision is whether to add to their solar array and buy an electric car. They would need to add 15 panels.

They’re lucky because they have the room to do that.

“I would think anyone on the farm would do this,” said Sheila, noting that natural gas isn’t available everywhere and propane can be a “nuisance” in terms of running out.

“To me, solar sounds so much simpler,” she said. “You won’t make much money, but…”

Veitch, who has installed about 100 solar projects and a similar number of solar hot water systems, said traditionally solar energy operated at a loss but that is changing.

Many projects are at the break-even point and some are seeing rates of return of 10 percent or higher, which makes them attractive investments.

He said financial institutions don’t always see solar projects as more than a cost, so that is a barrier.

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