The ballpark cost of buying and installing photovoltaic panels ranges from $2.50 to $3.50 per watt. Supplied photo

Solar has come a long way in Alberta, say experts

A6When we last saw headlines from Alberta’s home solar energy sector, the news was a bit discouraging. But things have changed, and solar power is now looking like an increasingly bright idea.

Back in 2012, University of Alberta professor Andrew Leach analyzed the costs of Enmax’s solar panel leasing program and publicized his finding that homeowners who participated would actually pay more for power than those who stayed with a conventional plan.

Enmax concurred, saying the program was aimed at people who had reasons other than economic ones for choosing solar power.

That was four years ago. Today, there’s a range of suppliers, the cost of photovoltaic cells and related equipment has decreased, and the provincial government has put programs in place to help municipalities and farms go solar.

“The reality is, the economics of solar photovoltaic systems are improving,” said Rob Harlan, executive director of the Solar Energy Society of Alberta, a 40-year-old non-profit organization dedicated to research and education on solar and other renewable energy sources.

“It’s a competitive and healthy industry, and very much a growing industry.”

Photovoltaic cells turn light into electricity. Their efficiency benefits from plenty of sunshine, of course.

They also work best in cold temperatures (Harlan calls this “the Alberta advantage”), making our province one of the world’s prime locations for solar power generation.

Homes and their power usage vary, but Harlan said the typical home, which uses 600 kilowatt hours of electricity per month, is capable of meeting all its electricity needs through solar power.

“You would need a five- to six-kilowatt solar power system, and that would essentially meet your electricity needs. Most, not all, homes have room for that.”

The typical urban photovoltaic setup is tied into the conventional power grid, so excess electricity goes into the system. Any shortages are made up by drawing from the grid.

Of course, there’s an up-front cost to all this efficiency, and a few considerations such as the orientation and pitch of your home’s roof that go into the equation.

The ballpark cost of buying and installing photovoltaic panels ranges from $2.50 to $3.50 per watt, according to Calgary-based solar power provider Neighbour Power Inc. Those who are able to pay cash benefit the most since there are no interest charges to include in utility costs.

But even when financing is included, there’s still often a positive fiscal picture.

“We’re seeing a return on investment of four per cent, in that range, if you look at it over the lifetime of the system,” said Harlan. The normal lifespan rating of a system is 25 years, although 40 years of useful life is not uncommon.

“Once the system is paid for, the savings become substantial.”

Solar power has moved well beyond the experimental stage. I’m typing this on a solar-powered Bluetooth keyboard. And if you look around, you’ll probably see photovoltaic devices nearby — perhaps a calculator, outdoor lighting, crosswalk signal or Bluetooth speaker.

“Renewable energy is definitely infiltrating our lives in a big way,” said Harlan. “It’s unstoppable at this point. It’s very exciting to look at what’s happening.”

If you want to find out whether your home could benefit from solar power, visit solaralberta.ca, click on the Find Solar Providers link and go to the Alberta Solar Providers Directory. Narrow your search to Calgary.

Harlan recommends contacting two or three companies to get quotes and details before making a decision.

Miles Durrie’s Digital Downlow column appears exclusively in CREB®Now biweekly. Questions? Story suggestions? Email digitaldownlowcalgary@gmail.com.