Solar Energy System Empowers

Film on climate change inspires couple to draw electricity from sun

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Jeremy Mercer does not consider himself an environmental activist but his actions say more than any flag or bullhorn.

He and his wife Jennifer watched Al Gore's documentary about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, last spring. It changed them.

"It was really a watershed moment for us," Mercer said. "We were kind of bystanders to the global warming debate prior to that, but that movie really opened my eyes to the scope of the problem."

The Mercers decided to reduce their energy consumption and carbon footprint. They started small by changing their light bulbs to energy-efficient compact fluorescents, turning off appliances when not in use and dialing down the thermostat when possible. Later, they bought carbon offsets for their two vehicles and house through TerraPass and replaced their gas lawnmower with an efficient electrical Reel mower.

"But I really wanted to make a bigger statement," Mercer said.

He researched solar energy and quickly became a convert. Three weeks after watching Gore's film, the couple was planning a solar power system for their house.

Although BC meets much of its energy needs through low-polluting hydroelectric power, the province does import energy from Alberta, Washington and Oregon, primarily from coal-fired plants, Mercer said.

Mercer contacted BC Hydro to find out how to go about it.

As with many other jurisdictions, BC Hydro will buy consumer-generated electricity; the practice is referred to as net metering.

"Individual home-owners or smaller businesses can contribute back to the grid in a system without a lot of bureaucracy; it's a very simple process," Mercer said.

He contacted Carmanah, a BC company specializing in green technology. They pointed him to Nick Houser, owner of Off Grid Services in Powell River.

Houser specializes in renewable energies such as solar and small hydroelectric power systems. People come to him for a couple of reasons; they live too far from the power grid, making electrical connection prohibitively expensive, or because they want to reduce electrical consumption. Many of his customers live in isolated areas such as Savary Island, Desolation Sound or Powell Lake.

Houser helped the Mercers design and install a system to meet their needs.

The Mercers kept it simple. Rather than becoming totally reliant on solar or off the grid, they chose to stay on the grid. Going off-grid requires batteries, which are expensive to buy and require regular maintenance. Batteries can supply backup power when the grid is down and at times when solar production is lower but they also decrease the system's efficiency, by as much as 15 to 20 per cent, said Houser. By forgoing batteries, their system is maintenance-free.

Houser first installed an inverter, an electronic piece that converts what solar modules produce, direct current (DC), into household current, which is alternating current (AC). The inverter not only has to convert DC to AC, it has to produce the correct voltage and frequency to synchronize with BC Hydro.

Next a crew installed the racks and 20 solar modules onto the Mercers' roof. Then it was just a matter of connecting the roof equipment to the inverter.

But "doing the right thing" was not cheap.

"There is no payback analysis; you do it either because you're very serious about it or it's a lifestyle choice," Mercer said.

The solar system cost the Mercers approximately $35,000. If current electricity rates continue, the Mercers' system may take as long as 80 years to pay for itself. This is not because the system is inefficient; the solar panels have helped to offset their energy consumption by about one-third. It is because in BC, electricity is inexpensive, lowering the Mercers' savings, and because BC Hydro does not pay consumer power generators like the Mercers as high a rate as some other jurisdictions. This system of buying energy from the consumer is called net metering. BC Hydro pays energy producers a rate about one cent less than the current utility rate.

Areas such as Ontario and California give the energy producer a better deal.

"I'm not sure why Ontario has taken the initiative in this, but hopefully BC Hydro will take a look and realize that it's to their advantage," Mercer said.

He took action, writing Richard Neufeld, the provincial minister of energy, mines and petroleum, as well as BC Hydro and the BC Utilities Commission, to express his concerns about the low rate.

"This is one of the major roadblocks that stand in the way of solar energy or other green technologies," Mercer said.

Neufeld replied to Mercer and said the government wants to see 100,000 homes using solar power connected to the electrical grid, but he did not give a timeline or much detail to how that would happen.

For the moment, BC Hydro does not have any plans to change the net-metering rate, said BC Hydro spokeswoman Gillian Robinson.

"There are other jurisdictions, I've read, that have more financial incentives for people to adopt green technology," Mercer said.

California is one of them. "The state has been a leader in solar grid-tie because the state offers up to 50 per cent immediate cash rebate. Some of the systems are huge. California also has a much higher utility rate, making solar that much more attractive to homeowners," said Houser.

In BC, solar electrical packages are exempt from provincial sales tax. There are no other incentives to invest in this green technology.

It is not surprising that there are only 20 homes supplying solar power to the grid in BC.

Houser feels BC Hydro is missing out on a golden opportunity. "The real beauty of solar grid-tie is its power output peaks right at the time that peak lows are on the grid in the early afternoon, so that's very much to their benefit," he said.

BC Hydro could also take advantage of distributed generation. "Small power producers distributed through the grid produce power where it is used without the transmission losses of a big power station somewhere," Houser said. "That's a tremendous advantage to the utility; all those things could cause BC Hydro to assess their net metering rate."

Although solar energy is still out of reach for many people, the technology is becoming more accessible and more efficient, said Houser.

"There's a huge insatiable market for solar-electric, particularly in Japan and Germany, but also in the developing world. There are new manufacturers coming on-stream all the time. You can imagine the numbers of people trying to increase the efficiency," Houser said. "You would think with all that demand that the price would go up, but because the production levels are ramping up at such a ferocious rate, I'm finding this spring there was the cheapest solar `equipment` I've ever been able to buy."

reporter@prpeak.com