British Columbia Epitomizes State of Solar Power in Canada

BC solar homeToday we kick off an ongoing series on the state of solar power in Canada, looking at each province or region to determine how well, if at all, the nation is changing its energy diet to include renewables.

If there is one word to describe the adoption of solar power in Canada, particular residential solar power, it would be “lagging.”

With the exception of Ontario, the country’s 10 provinces and three territories lack the infrastructure, incentives or policy to spur more use of solar power, according to Jose Etcheverry, co-chair at York University’s Sustainable Energy Initiative. “We’re one of the few OECD countries that don’t have a federal renewable energy strategy.”

Every country in Europe, he said, as well as the United States and Mexico, has a strategy in place to foster adoption of renewable energy, including solar power. Until 2006, Canada’s federal government did have some incentives in place, but those have since been scrapped, said Etcheverry, and the focus in the past few years has been on oil pipeline expansion. “I don’t think the federal government will have a change of heart.”

Ontario has proven that implementing policies will spur a market for renewable energy, and the province’s phasing out of coal also created a void that could be filled by alternative energy sources, said Etcheverry. And with Ontario’s Darlington nuclear power facility in need of refurbishment, it opens the door to expand the use of solar, wind and natural gas.

British Columbia: A Green-Minded Province Where Solar is a Tough Sell

But for most provinces, it’s getting the economics to make sense for consumers, and British Columbia is an excellent example of how the price of solar power is simply not competitive for homeowners. With the majority of energy produced in the province already renewable, in large part due to hydro-electric facilities, there’s no clear reason to switch to solar power.

So despite having a reputation of being a green province, the current state of solar in British Columbia is not encouraging, according to Nigel Protter, executive director and CEO of BC Sustainable Energy Association (BCSEA). One primary reason is the province’s residential energy prices and utility commercial buy-back rates here are very low compared to almost anywhere else in the world, he said. “We offer no subsidies, feed-ins, or grants whatsoever for solar, and our electricity is already 93% renewable.”

While homeowners may feel they’re going green by adopting solar polar, Guy Dauncey, BCSEA’s communications director, said there’s no carbon leverage from making the shift. “It’s not a climate action.” Putting solar on the roof to address climate change simply doesn’t make any sense in B.C. “Our electricity is not burning carbon.”

The leaves the economic arguments, said Dauncey. B.C. has wind energy coming into the grid at 10 or 11 cents per kilowatt-hour, and solar is still at 30 cents. He predicts the “solar tsunami” that is sweeping across the world will probably reach BC in 2020, and that’s when the numbers will make more sense.

According to a provincial government study, The Potential for Solar Power in British Columbia: 2007 to 2025, BC’s climate is amenable to solar power, with the average production of a PV solar array in Vancouver at 1009 kWh/kW of PV installed, while the average in Kamloops is 1160 kWh/kW of PV installed. In addition, the study suggests that Vancouver has much more solar potential than either Tokyo at 885 kWh/kW of PV installed or Berlin at only 848.

Dauncey estimates there are only about 285 solar systems installed across the province that are on the grid based on net metering. “No one knows how many off-grid systems there are because there is no requirement to track them.”

There are homeowners willing to spend more so they can be energy-independent, according to Rob Baxter, co-owner of Vancouver Renewable Energy. The company was founded 10 years ago as a part-time venture that has turned into a healthy full-time business, specializing in designing and installing solar photovoltaics, solar hot water, solar pool heating and wind energy.  Its customers are willing to pay a premium for solar power, despite a lack of incentives, said Baxter. “They think the technology is cool and want to play with it.”

While Vancouver Renewable Energy did enjoy some business through Solar BC, a program that provided rebates for the installation of solar hot water systems on individual homes, government buildings, social housing, and schools and in First Nations communities, the program has ended, and that business has since dried up, and the company’s main focus is on solar panels for customers in Lower Mainland, with North Vancouver and Burnaby being the hotspots.

Baxter said Vancouver Renewable Energy has done both retrofits on older houses and installations for new builds. Right now the latter is at the whim of the homeowner, rather than builder. And if you’re constructing a $1 million home, adding $20,000 to incorporate solar power is a relatively an insignificant cost, he said.

B.C. is probably one of the toughest markets to sell solar, admitted Baxter, but BC Hydro does it make it easy to connect to the grid, and there’s no provincial sales tax on equipment. “It’s getting better as the prices for solar go down and electricity prices go up.”

The BCSEA continues to follow the technical evolution of solar, said Protter, so B.C. can pounce on it when the business case makes sense, “but grid parity for solar is probably seven to 15 years away for B.C. So the market for solar in B.C today, other than in micro off-grid appellations, is really voluntary only.”

In our next installment, we’ll look at Canada’s most solar-friendly province: Ontario.

Photo courtesy of Vancouver Renewable Energy.

Author: Gary Hilson

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Posted in: Solar Homes, Solar Policy, Solar Trends

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