It’s important to know how much electricity you are consuming in order to calculate the size of solar system that you will need to become net zero. Courtesy David Dodge

Solar 101

Harnessing the sun for all your energy needs

St. Albert’s Ron and Carole Kube had never known anyone with a solar-powered home. Then, in 2014, Ron Kube read a story in the newspaper about a household that installed a solar array. He was surprised to learn they were his former neighbours.

“In fact, the guy was Craig Dickie – he used to live across the street from us,” said Kube. “And I was so excited that I called up Craig and I said, ‘can I come over to the house and see the solar system?’ And he said, ‘yeah, sure, come on over.’ ”

The moment Kube saw the system, he was hooked.

Like many Albertans, Kube was waking up to a new and exciting realization: solar power isn’t the future – it’s the present. It’s already a practical option for anyone looking to produce their own clean energy. Not only does it drastically reduce your carbon footprint, but in the long run, it can save you money.

Kube did his homework, researching potential contractors at solaralberta.ca before calling up Clifton Lofthaug, owner of Edmonton’s Great Canadian Solar.

Lofthaug began by reviewing the Kubes’ utility bills to see how much they were consuming. Then, he calculated the size of the system needed to make their home net-zero for electricity.

Next, Lofthaug went onto the roof to evaluate the house’s solar potential. “There’s great gadgets out there that will actually tell you, automatically, how much sun you’ll get on the roof at that particular point throughout the year,” he said.

The Kubes only had a small piece of south-facing roof on their garage, so Lofthaug planned for a smaller solar system.

“They looked at our power bills and said ‘well, you’re using about 9,000 kilowatt hours a year in 2015. Are you interested in going full net-zero, which means putting solar panels on the east side of the house?’ And I said ‘Let’s do that, that’s a great idea,’ ” said Kube.

Kube says they lose about 15 per cent production potential for the east-facing solar, but it also means their solar array produces electricity earlier in the day.

Great Canadian Solar installed 34 solar modules on the Kubes’ home and garage – a nine-kilowatt system, enough to provide all of their electricity. The power runs through an inverter, which converts it to regular AC household current. The power is used in the home, and if the home doesn’t need the electricity, it flows out to the grid through a newly installed power meter.

The meter is bi-directional – measuring the electricity the Kubes export to the grid on sunny days and the electricity they import from the grid when the sun is not shining.

The utility company pays the Kubes the same rate for electricity whether they are selling or buying. However, it pays to use your solar electricity yourself, since you must pay administration and transmission fees when you buy it back. The grid serves as a kind of battery to balance out the Kubes’ electricity requirements.

But how does their solar array work during the dark, snowy Alberta winters? “We produce over 90 per cent of our total annual electricity generation between the months of March and October,” said Kube. “So, for that additional 10 per cent, I’m not going to go onto my roof and shovel my solar panels. Plus, normally what happens is the snow sloughs off eventually.”

“For us, the biggest benefit is lowering our carbon footprint. We were concerned about climate change and wanted to be able to do something.” – Ron Kube, St. Albert resident

It also helps that Alberta gets a lot of sun. Solar modules here produce an average of 50 per cent more electricity than modules in Hamburg, Germany.

Converting your home to solar does require a significant up-front capital investment.

Currently, the installed cost of solar runs about $3 per watt. A typical home in Calgary might require a 5.5-kilowatt system, with a price tag of about $16,500. In Edmonton, you’d likely require a bit more – about 6.3 kilowatts for roughly $18,900.

However, once you factor in current provincial rebates of about 25 per cent, or $0.75/watt, solar starts to look appealing.

According to Lofthaug, some people are willing to invest that much for the environmental benefit alone. But a solar system pays off economically as well. Your system will save you money by the end of its 25-year guaranteed lifespan, and it will likely continue to chug along for decades beyond that.

You will spend the money on electricity anyway, Lofthaug says, so why not have a solar system to show for it? “It’s just a matter of whether you’re going to pay for it on your monthly utility bill, or whether you invest in your own system and then eventually have it paid off.”

When Kube caught the solar bug, he checked his own electricity bills and was shocked to find his home was consuming 12,172 kilowatt hours of electricity per year. That’s well above the average of 7,200 kilowatt hours for Alberta homes.

Before buying their solar system, Kube became an energy detective. He found it was easy to reduce their electricity demand by changing lights, unplugging a beer fridge and making a few inexpensive changes around the home.

They reduced their energy demand to 9,000 kilowatt hours per year by the time they bought their solar system. Since then, they have further slashed energy use to an astonishing 5,300 kilowatt hours per year.
This means the Kubes now produce more solar electricity than they consume in a year.

Rather than sell that electricity back to the grid at a few cents per kilowatt hour, as he does currently, Ron hopes to consume more of his output himself by purchasing an electric vehicle. This will increase the return on his surplus power. By his own calculation, the value of charging an electric car would be $0.88 per kilowatt hour, considerably more than he’d earn exporting it to the grid.

Despite the other benefits of their new solar system, the Kubes insist the real clincher for them was the environment – especially here in Alberta, where we have only just begun to wean our province off coal-powered electricity.

“For us, the biggest benefit is lowering our carbon footprint,” said Kube. “We were concerned about climate change and wanted to be able to do something.”

When you can help save the planet, become energy self-sufficient and save a little over the long term, what’s not to love about solar power?

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