Rooftop Solar: Why not BC?

By Roy L Hales

It was a hot August day. Thanks to the ten solar panels recently installed on his garage roof, Hans Wekking was getting more than enough energy for his house and his EV. Pointing to his meter box, he said, “Right now, its showing that we are putting power in the grid.” There would have been nothing unusual about this scene in California, but in British Columbia it made the news.

According to Alevtina Akbulatova, of BC Hydro, there are 250 rooftop solar installations in the province.

By way of comparison, California has 167,878.

British Columbia’s solar presence is slight even in Canadian terms. The only province where rooftop solar has taken hold is Ontario, which had 759.4 MW of installed PV systems in 2012. Alberta and BC, the nation’s #2 and #3 rooftop provinces, produced 2.2 MW and 2.1, respectively.

Why hasn’t solar caught on in BC?

The model that most people look to is Germany, which produces a third of the World’s solar energy.

According to Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, “Germany gets only about as much annual sun as Seattle or Alaska; its sunniest region gets less sun than almost anywhere in the lower 48 states. This underscores an important point: solar power works and competes not only in the sunniest places, but in some pretty cloudy places, too.”

“Germany is the world’s leading country of solar installations per capita and their annual solar energy availability is consistent with BC,” said Jim Musselwhite, of G.E.T. Solar Solutions. “Additionally, Victoria is one of the sunniest cities in the province with half the annual rainfall of Vancouver and an estimated 2,223 hours of sunshine every year!”

Ms Akbulatova said that most of the Province’s rooftop solar users are in Victoria or the Lower Mainland.

One of the best known examples is Gord and Ann Baird’s ”Eco-Sense” home, which combines “photovoltaic (PV), solar thermal hot water, energy and water conservation, composting toilets, rainwater harvesting, grey-water re-use, living roof, earthen floors, food gardens and chickens, all integrated into their exceptionally beautiful and affordable example of earthen architecture.”

Musselwhite believes that if the government spent half the money on renewable energy that it does for fossil fuels, solar could really catch on it BC.

Ms Akbulatova agreed. If the government were to create incentives, we would see progress.

The phenomenal growth of rooftop solar in California is partially the result of a $3.3 billion investment made from 2007 to early 2013. Most of the funding has expired, but the industry continued to grow and was producing 2,000 MW by the end of the year.

Many Solar companies found it advantageous to lease panels to their customers. This brought them more business and enabled homeowners to acquire renewable technology for a lower cost than what they had been paying their utility company.

As the utility raised their prices, they drove customers to solar. Some San Diego installers, for example, reported having their best season ever after the local utility raised the rates 11%.

BC Hydro could find itself in a similar position, with their rates set to increase 28% over the next five years, if they there was a viable option.

I believe that, given the chance, BC’s solar industry could assume a much larger role than it has at present.

It is also a greener option. Unlike large dam projects, solar panels do not negatively impact fisheries or require flooding large tracts of land. Nor, like fracking,  do they require injecting massive amounts of water, sand, and chemicals at high pressure into the earth, or cause periodic “minor seismic events.”

(Image at top of page: Photovoltaic solar panels, by Alfred Twu, released into public domain.)

5 thoughts on “Rooftop Solar: Why not BC?”

  1. It is not only solar PV that has not caught on yet, it is also solar thermal, which has a better efficiency and hence more practicality to users who do not wish to be terribly out of pocket to be more environmentally responsible. I believe it will require for electric and gas rates to increase dramatically, or for governmental funding programs be introduced again before solar of any kind is given consideration by the public. You mention 28% but rates are so low right now, that 100% would be more inline to have an impact on the PV industry here in BC. Same thing for gas rates and the solar thermal industry. If BC were honest about its carbon tax initiatives, they should take a more accurate measure of cost to our environment of continuing to use non-renewable resources and add that to everyone’s utility bills. Put that away in trust for the kids who will need to be building sea walls to keep out the rising waters. And if the rates were then looked at in comparison to the cost for installing solar, everyone would have it because it makes money sense.

    1. I would say PV still isn’t cheap enough to be useful in BC. It might be soon, but it probably isn’t now.

      Compared to California our electricity rates are dirt cheap even with a 30% increase. The electricity itself is also quite green, even if we import some power at night. So why bother? It’s already cheap and decent.

      The capacity factor is also an issue, compared to a place like California you will have to install a lot more panels to get the same output. Sunshine hours are great, but sunshine intensity will never come close in BC to Cali. Given the same weather in California you get 21% more power for the same panels.

      Lastly, since we don’t have a big air conditioning load on sunny days, hydro doesn’t need a lot of power when solar is working at it’s best. So the demand doesn’t line up with the production as well as it does in hotter climates.

      All this can be addressed if panels get cheaper though.

      1. Good points, but according to a 2007 report made for BC Hydro (The Potential for Solar Electric Power in British Columbia: 2007-2025) our sunshine is not as big an issue as you might think. “With an annual production potential of 1100 kWg per kW installed, BC has a far better solar climate than either Japan and German” (Tokyo has 885 and Berlin 848) We should be able to at least match Germany, if we had the will.

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