Clean energy has certainly come a long way in fossil-rich Alberta. “Years ago, when people wanted to produce their own energy, they would maybe think about a little wind turbine, that would kind of whirl and make this really high-pitched noise when it spun,” says Benjamin Thibault, executive director at Solar Alberta. “At this point, nobody’s doing that anymore.” Improvements in technology, coupled with concerns about climate change and rising fossil fuel prices, have convinced a growing number of Albertans to turn to solar power for at least part of their energy needs. With that in mind, we take a look at the state of solar energy in Alberta, and how homeowners and businesses alike might benefit from its emergence.
Solar systems are actually pretty simple, consisting of just a few general components which follow a basic process. Photovoltaic (PV) modules, the tilted panels you see on roofs, are made of layers of silicon, a semiconductor that generates a current of DC electricity as it soaks up sunlight. This current then travels to at least one inverter, which converts it into usable AC electricity. Most of these systems are on-grid, meaning they are connected to the same electrical grid as everyone else—an important consideration, as solar energy obviously can only be produced at certain times.
This is one reason why, at the present time, solar’s slice of the energy pie in Alberta is still fairly small. According to the Canada Energy Regulator (formerly the National Energy Board), most of the electricity in the province is produced from coal and natural gas. Only 13 percent comes from renewables, namely wind, hydro and biomass. Solar barely registers.
Yet it’s a rapidly growing sector of energy production. While solar still contributes just a small part of production provincially, it’s an important contribution and one which has been booming recently. According to the Alberta Electric System Operator, solar production represented some 1,100 sites and 5.5 MW of total installed capacity in April 2015. By October 2019, those numbers had grown to 4,600 sites and 55 MW. Large-scale projects are also contributing to this boom, such as the 130-MW facility recently being developed outside Claresholm, which will double solar power production in the province.
“That’s what demonstrates that the industry really matured over that timeframe and became a sector with its feet underneath it,” Thibault says.
He thanks a drop in prices for the growth. Cheaper and more efficient module parts and increasing local competition between installers, have made solar systems more affordable than ever for homeowners and businesses.
That’s good because between summer and winter, Alberta inflicts some extreme temperatures on its residents. Not coincidentally, we’re high energy users, given our greater heating and cooling needs. Fortunately, Alberta also happens to be one of the best spots in Canada for solar energy. The Solar Power Canada guide put out by EnergyHub ranks us behind only Saskatchewan in average “solar production potential,” a measurement that expresses the amount of energy that can be produced in a year given the size of a system. The upshot is that because of the relatively high amount of solar irradiation (also known as insolation) here, a household needs fewer solar panels to produce a certain amount of power than other places.
“There’s parts of southern Alberta that get as much or even a bit more annual solar energy insolation as Rio De Janeiro,” he says, crediting our dry environment and relative lack of cloud cover for what he calls “the best solar resource in the country.”
The sun really shines in spring and summer, which sees one of two peak times of electricity usage in the province, when air conditioners drone on muggy summer days. While our air conditioning load, like our humidity, isn’t nearly as bad as many other places, air conditioner usage is still on the rise as more Albertans seek comfort from the dog-day heat.
“Within the next couple of years we’ll actually become a summer-peaking province, whereas we’ve been a winter-peaking province historically,” Thibault says. “That also happens to be when old steam turbine facilities, like coal plants, tend to have trouble.” In other words, solar is at peak production just when demand is highest in the summer and just when conventional power plants are at risk of temporary shutdowns due to heat-related problems.
Probably the most obvious drawback of solar is the simple fact that the sun doesn’t always shine. Utility companies deal with this in part through net-metering, in which they buy surplus power that small systems generate during peak production times. The excess is purchased at the same rate as the customer’s retail rate and fed back into the grid, and the customer receives credits in return. In the shorter, cloudier days of fall and winter, when production wanes, customers can use those credits to purchase power from the grid to cover their household demand.
Net metering also attempts to answer another notable challenge of solar energy production: the electricity produced from solar dissipates if it isn’t stored right away. Off-grid systems in remote areas might use batteries, like the Tesla Powerwall. But as a single Powerwall can cost around $10,000 and more than one would be needed to fully power most homes, it’s a pricey option. For most homeowners, connection to the grid through a net-metering plan obviates the need for storage.
While we’re on the topic of money, there’s also the setup cost. Despite prices coming down in recent years, solar systems are still a pretty penny to get going. Installers should be consulted for quotes, as every house and every solar system is unique to some degree. But for a rough estimate, a homeowner simply needs to calculate how much energy their household uses in a year. Annual energy use, in kilowatt hours (kWh), can then be divided by 1,276—the average annual number of full sunlight hours in Alberta—to determine the appropriate size of a system, in kilowatts (kW).
According to EnergyHub, the average Alberta household consumes 7,200 kWh annually; this would require a system that produces 5.64 kW. If that’s difficult to picture, then a money amount might be easier: the average solar installation cost in Alberta is around $2.89 per installed watt, meaning a 5.64 kW system could have a bill of around $16,300.
There’s also the question of size and space. Panels in smaller, residential systems vary in size from brand to brand, but on average are 1.6 m long by 1.0 m wide and weigh somewhere around 18 kg. A typical 6 kW system will use 20 solar panels, requiring around 40 m2 of roof space. The total weight of panels and other equipment works out to around 1.4 to 1.8 kg per square meter, which is easily manageable for most homes.
It’s an investment, but one that Thibault and other proponents of solar power argue pays for itself over the lifespan of the hardware, generally estimated at 25 years. And these savings are available even when working at scale, unlike other forms of energy, which are cost competitive only at the utility level.
“With solar, you can make it work at any level,” Thibault says. “Often the modules on a large solar farm are the same or similar to the modules you put on your roof. If you’re looking at producing energy on your own right now, you’re looking at solar to do it.”
The long-term savings from solar come not just from the longevity of the equipment, but also from the energy independence that ideally results. Sure, solar energy is clean, but perhaps a more persuasive argument in favour is that it allows a household or business to hedge against future increases in energy prices. “I might not save any money next month on my solar panels,” he says, “but I get that rate locked in for the next 15 or 20 years, and that’s where I can hedge against my worry that electricity costs are going to be way higher in 2035 than they are right now.”
For those considering a home solar system, Thibault recommends doing research and exploring options, perhaps by visiting the Solar Alberta website (solaralberta.ca). The site has a directory of service providers throughout the province, as well as publications, seminars and other free resources that break down the science and benefits of solar power, as well as detailed information on planning for a home system and choosing an installer.
For Thibault, it’s not just the current state and growth of solar power that is exciting. Through technological innovation, the materials involved have made solar energy competitive and viable, and more of the same can be expected in coming years. He’s particularly excited about innovations that aren’t quite at commercial-scale yet, but will be before long. Solar siding and shingles are already on the market and coming down in price, and batteries are rapidly advancing, potentially solving one of the biggest challenges in solar energy: storing energy that would otherwise dissipate.
Alberta’s love affair with oil, natural gas and coal might seem like a roadblock to adopting cleaner energy, but even in this Thibault sees opportunity. Our long history as an energy power, he argues, gives us a leg up. He cites the technical expertise of a large pool of engineers and technicians, and a rural base that already open to renewable energy as a way to get the most financially out of their land.
Following in the wake of coal and natural gas and oil booms, solar and other forms of renewable energy might just be the next chapter in our energy story. “there’s a huge history to alberta’s energy identity kind of transitioning and moving over time,” thibault says. “that history makes it ripe for accommodating other energy sources into that identity.” T8n
“Solar collectors,” aka solar panels, are covered by the city’s Land Use Bylaw. This requires that two conditions are met:
1) The owner must obtain a building and electrical permit, and
2) The installation must comply with the Alberta Building Code and Canadian Electrical Code
Solar collectors may be attached to roofs or walls, and are considered a part of a building when measuring height.
For more information, visit stalbert.ca and download the 2012 Local Action Plan for Energy Conservation and Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions.
Alberta’s Micro-Generation Regulation (alberta.ca/micro-generation.aspx) also provides useful info for the prospective solar buyer.