Solar panels are installed on the roof of a home. (Mel Evans/AP)
Green-minded homeowners embrace energy from sun
Last Updated December 28, 2007
Two years ago a 'sunshine' revolution started in Toronto's Riverdale neighbourhood.
Rather than waiting for the government or corporations to start pushing solar energy, resident Ron McKay called a meeting of like-minded homeowners who had not only 'seen the light,' but wanted to power their homes with it.
Inspired by Solar Pioneers, a 1999 Greenpeace solar energy pilot project, McKay figured if residents formed a group they could bargain a better volume price on solar roof panels. And that's how the Riverdale Initiative for Solar Energy (RISE) was born. The group sent out proposals to different solar energy manufacturers in Ontario saying they had potentially a large number of customers and asked for a discount deal. Initially, 180 people showed interest, and 70 signed up for a site inspection.
A home's solar panels can be wired into the electrical grid so that unused electricity is sold to the local power utility. (David Zalubowski/AP)
RISE chose the company Solera, which had been involved in Solar Pioneers, and work started. Solera installed photovoltaic solar panels (which generate electricity) on 35 residents' roofs. The cost was roughly $10,000 to $12,000 for a one-kilowatt system and $20,000 for the two-kilowatt system.
"Solar cells are comprised of silicon which is specially treated so when light strikes it, it causes electrons to flow. It's a direct converter of light energy to electrical energy," explains RISE President Leonard Allen.
"Ideally, panels are mounted flat on the roof, each one generating about 200 watts of electricity when the sun is shining on it. The panels are strung together to form an array. The minimum system is five panels generating approximately 1,000 watts, which is about 10 to 15 per cent of what a typical home would consume on an annual basis."
Riverdale residents had two choices of how to use that electricity.
"Net metering uses one meter. When the sun comes up and the panels start generating electricity, your meter slows down. At peak production, your meter runs backwards, so you're having a net difference or crediting yourself," McKay says.
"The other program uses two meters and was launched in 2006 by the Ontario government called the Standard Power contract. It allows homeowners to sell electricity produced by the panels back to the grid. Your home becomes a kind of generating plant," McKay says, adding that residents sell electricity back to hydro for much more than they pay for it under the plan.
Under the standard offer or hydro sellback plan it would take 25 years to break even, says Allen. However, there is no annual maintenance to the panels and their lifetime is 40 years. While an electrical permit is required from the power authority, no other permits are required from municipalities right now.
The driving force behind the project, says McKay, was that, "It's the right thing to do for the environment and for the future of our children's health. When people ask about the investment, I tell them they're helping the energy grid by producing their own power."
Several members of RISE launched Ourpower, a community group with a website, to educate other homeowners about solar power.
"The goal of the site was to put up all of the information about a solar co-op purchase for residential use," says Dave Ullrich, one of the website's developers.
Ullrich created an album a year ago with songs by solar-minded performers, including Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip and Steven Page from Barenaked Ladies (who has installed solar panels on the roof of his Riverdale home). It raised funds to run the website as well as to pay the co-op's operating costs.
Other areas of the city and province have jumped on the sunshine bandwagon. The West Toronto Initiative for Solar Energy chose to have panels installed on its roofs, generating electricity and heating water. Residents in Guelph also got together to purchase solar panels. Across the country, more homeowners are banding together and going solar.
While it may be possible to bargain a better price for a group, some homeowners are going the solar route. North Toronto resident Jane Taylor researched solar companies, chose Sun Volts Unlimited, and had 11 panels installed on her roof.
"I want to leave less of a footprint. If everyone does their part, a lot will be accomplished," she said.
Solar panels are not something every homeowner can use though.
"You need clear sunlight. In more heavily treed areas you can't [install solar panels]. There is annual payback, not month-by-month payback. The monthly yield would be two to three times in the summer what it is in the winter," Allen says.
Homeowners can also buy kits in stores if they want to adopt solar power on their own. Do-it-yourself kits are more suited to a cottage or RV where there's no electricity. Residential panels are connected to the electrical grid, while those for cottages or RVs are simply stand alone systems that are often low voltage and cheaper.
Municipalities and builders are also seeing the light. Governments in different provinces along with the Canadian government are offering incentives to those who install solar panels. A Toronto city council committee recently approved an initiative to have solar panels installed on city buildings by an independent company and then purchase energy at the same or lower price than the city pays now. The University of Calgary Child Development Centre recently scored a prestigious environmental award for, among other things, installing solar panels on its south wall capable of producing enough electricity to supply six family homes.
The grassroots nature of the expansion of solar energy excites Allen. "I enjoy going to the meetings because these are people who philosophically realize the value in participating, in being part of the solution. It doesn't necessarily have to have fantastic economics; it just has to be the next common-sense step in energy supply. People want stabilization of energy costs, security in terms of backup power, and to do their part for the environment. There are a lot of pluses."
McKay says it is about making communities liveable and neighbours helping neighbours.
"When you invest in any sustainable energy you're actually increasing the value of your house, reducing your energy costs and the impact of global warming and improving air quality and the environment."
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