Cheaper panels, interest in going green spurs boom in rooftop solar
Falling prices for panels and environmental concerns convince some to find potential in their rooftops
Three years ago, Earle Ten Have threw the switch on an array of 39 solar panels on his barn roof in Nanaimo, B.C. — and he's never looked back.
"As far as I'm concerned, solar is a no-brainer," he said.
The system, which cost $30,000 to install, has been silently sending about $2,000 worth of electricity to his house every year, dramatically cutting his annual bill from the provincial utility, B.C. Hydro.
And since installation, the price of solar panels has dropped, while their output and efficiency have steadily risen. Ten Have has gone on to install them on two other houses he built for his children on the same two-acre property; one project generates enough electricity to completely wipe out that home's hydro bill, he said.
As Ten Have sees it, deciding to go solar is now no different than choosing whether to install new carpets or countertops.
"I'd rather have … a solar system that pays me every month than granite countertops," he said.
Demand for solar installations is surging across Canada, according to Nicholas Gall, a director at the Canadian Renewable Energy Association, an industry group that represents 300 companies involved in wind, solar and energy storage.
"We're definitely on the cusp of an era of mass adoption," he said.
His association's data shows that commercial and residential solar generation has grown from just a few megawatts — enough to power a few hundred homes — a decade ago, to more than one gigawatt in 2020, supplying enough electricity for the equivalent of more than 100,000 homes.
And while Gall doesn't think "there's more than maybe 40,000 solar rooftops in all of Canada," right now, he said, installers have never been busier.
'Can't hire enough'
Ten years ago, Colyn Strong started Shift Energy Group, an energy consultancy firm in Vancouver. Today, solar installations account for virtually all of their work. His company expects to do 200 installations this year alone.
"We can't hire enough employees right now … to keep up with demand," said Strong.
Solar energy systems also account for a growing part of the business for Penfolds Roofing, which operates in the Greater Vancouver Area and B.C.'s Fraser Valley.
"Lots of people are doing it because they drive an electric vehicle and they want to offset some of that cost," said company president Shaun Mayhew. "And there's other people who just think it's the right thing to do for society and the environment."
WATCH | A look at the solar panels on the roof at Snow Cap Enterprises:
Both reasons apply to Linda Seiffert, who is one of Mayhew's clients. As president of Snow Cap Enterprises, a bakery and food distributor in Burnaby, B.C., she decided to use the company's sprawling industrial rooftop for what's believed to be the single largest commercial installation of solar panels in the province.
"We have a lot of diesel trucks and I thought … what can I do to lessen our footprint?" said Seiffert.
More than 1,000 panels — each the size of a large flatscreen TV — will begin cranking out more than 500 megawatt hours a year when the project is finished in about a month's time. The goal is to trim $5,000 from the company's monthly $19,000 hydro bill, though Seiffert said the company won't break even on the investment for a decade.
"I'm not living off the grid," Seiffert joked. "But I'm trying to do what I can."
A number of installers say, anecdotally, they believe the Canada Greener Homes Grant, announced in May, has created demand for residential solar panels. That's created a shortage of auditors in some parts of the country, as close to 100,000 applications have come in so far, according to Natural Resources Canada.
The grant promises homeowners up to $5,000 for systems that qualify after an energy audit. It can be applied to a variety of energy efficiency upgrades, such as heat pumps and insulation, so the federal department can't say how many applications are linked to solar projects.
No batteries required
Whether it's 10 solar panels or 1,000, the system relies on using the existing hydro grid in an arrangement with the utility known as net metering: any electricity produced that isn't immediately used is fed back to the utility for a credit against future consumption. No batteries required.
And while utilities like B.C. Hydro facilitate it, they also limit how much solar energy can be self-generated.
In Ontario, for example, electricity distributors are only required to allow net metering up to a total of one per cent of the utility's peak load, though the Ontario Energy Board said it's not aware of anyone being turned down from its program.
With the average upfront cost of residential solar being between $17,500 and $21,000, lengthy break-even periods and what she says is some of the least favourable weather for solar in North America,B.C. Hydro spokesperson Susie Reider suggests there are better investments.
"In B.C. you can actually reduce your carbon footprint more from buying an electric vehicle or installing an electric heat pump," she said.
About 90 per cent of the B.C. utility's power is already clean, Reider said, because it comes from hydroelectric facilities. The rest is generated from a mixture of burning biomass (wood and pulp), natural gas and oil, with wind and solar contributing about one per cent each.
Strong chuckles when he hears a hydro utility diminish and down-sell solar.
"It's a conflict of interest for them," he said. "They're in the business of producing power. I wouldn't expect them to, as an organization, really endorse or encourage the adoption of solar."
Strong also disputes the claim that hydro power is truly green, pointing to the Site C dam in northeastern B.C., which has been criticized for its scope, schedule and budget. By the time it's finished in 2025, it will have taken 10 years and $16 billion to build.
Solar won't save the planet
While small-scale solar may cut individual hydro bills, on its own, it won't do much to help the province get to net-zero emissions — let alone save the planet, according to University of Victoria engineering professor Andrew Rowe, who studies energy systems and conversion.
"I tend to go to the hard numbers … the cost and the performance you get," he said. "But I think a lot of people who are doing this have a different value proposition calculation in their head."
Going forward, however, Rowe says solar will only make sense.
"It's getting more and more difficult to build big stuff. So putting a solar panel on a building, that footprint, in terms of the ecological footprint, is there and done," he said. "And that's where something like residential or commercial rooftop solar installation has additional value that we're not capturing right now."
Going solar — even to put just a dozen panels on a bungalow — comes with some caveats. It isn't as simple as hanging a string of Christmas lights. Depending on where you live, it can be a straightforward upgrade like re-shingling a roof, or it can be mired for months in an approval process.
In B.C. a patchwork of permitting regulations — some so old they don't even mention solar panels — frustrates installers and homeowners alike.
Sukhpaul Parmar, who owns Ready Solar, said some municipalities, like Burnaby, demand detailed drawings, blueprints and engineering reports. "This is no different than building a house," Parmar said.
Complying with the local regulations can also quickly eat up any government grant money, said Scott Fleenor, who started his solar-focused company, Terratek Energy Solutions, 17 years ago.
"It can cost thousands of dollars. You're basically having a guy out and recreating drawings. In some cases, we've lost projects because of it."
Elsewhere in Canada, some cities appear more welcoming of the technology.
Toronto has a number of incentives and fast tracks solar-installation permits in five days. Saskatoon has mandated that it will maximize solar potential by 2036. And Halifax offers homeowners low-interest loans to finance solar installations.
Detractors further focus on what they say is a looming crisis as the industry grows: Solar waste.
In a 2016 report, the International Renewable Energy Agency estimated Canada had generated 350 tonnes of discarded solar systems, projecting that by 2050, the amount would escalate to 650,000 tonnes.
"We don't see this as a looming crisis by any means," responded Gall.
While there is currently no systematic recycling program in place, he said there isn't yet enough volume to develop one.
And solar panels, Gall said, are "very safe."
"They're almost entirely glass and aluminum, with a tiny amount of lead and silver, which are perfectly within the frame," he said. "They don't leach any toxic elements even in a landfill. Even if they're crushed, they're very inert."
The panels being installed today have a life expectancy of 25 to 30 years, he said, which is more than enough time to adopt a recycling system.