SASKATCHEWAN’S FIRST SOLAR TOUR

I joined forty others on the province’s first solar tour held June 19th to highlight the summer solstice, the longest day of sunlight. The tour was organized by the environmental advocacy group Clean Green Regina in concert with other groups. We travelled on a Regina transit bus rented for the occasion and saw eight residential, business or institutional applications of solar energy. Eleven other locations could not be visited because of the shortage of time. We saw rooftop thermal panels heating water; we saw photovoltaic (PV) panels and wind-turbines producing electricity. (Wind is solar energy as it’s created by the shifting of temperature.) We learned more about solar technology and how electricity is measured: 1 kilowatt (kW) equals 1,000 watts and 1 kilowatt-hour (kWh) is 1000 watts produced for an hour.

We went to see the 3.5 kW (3,500 watt) capacity wind turbine installed on a building at the University of Regina, but found that it isn’t yet operating. It’s a 2.5 meter high vertical axis turbine, meaning it turns vertically like an egg-beater, not like a propeller. It’s taken the university quite a while to incorporate multi-disciplinary knowledge into its energy research, having been involved in fossil fuel and uranium research for decades. The potential for solar has been literally over the academic’s heads all along.  Rooftops, like classrooms and labs, can serve multiple purposes and with a little foresight every roof at the U of R could be used to gather thermal energy to heat water, and for PV panels to produce electricity. Roofs can also be used for on-roof greeneries and gardening, which is happening in many urban downtowns.

Institutions are however, slow to change. We saw evidence of institutional lag when we visited the Science Centre to see the 2.8 kW of PV panels installed in 2000 by Sask Power “for research purposes”.  The Crown Corporation concluded “Results showed that the cost savings realized from the solar system cannot effectively offset the capital costs of installation”,  continuing “As a result, this technology is better suited to niche applications where connection to the grid is uneconomical or when passive solar enhancement is desired.” These conclusions are antiquated. Solar panels are now tested and rated globally under Standard Testing Conditions (STC). Not only has their efficiency increased but the cost has dropped sharply. Since I priced PV panels for our place three years ago the price has dropped 50% and is now competitive with small wind turbines.

GREENING THE GRID

Thankfully there’s a big gap between Sask Power’s antiquated research and its new policy of net-metering. Net-metering enables a homeowner or small business to connect to the public grid. Any electricity you produce is used first and you are given credit for any excess over each 12 month period. If you install a PV system you will draw off the public grid after the sun goes down, but may generate excess electricity onto the grid during the day. If you have a hybrid system, with both PV and wind, such as we are planning to install, you could produce some excess electricity throughout the day and night. If people apply for net-metering they can also apply for a 35% installation cost rebate from the Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC) in return for access to utility records for a ten-year study of the shift to solar.

If decentralized solar energy expands it will steadily reduce the need for Sask Power to build large, expensive, polluting thermal plants. This will benefit the taxpayer and environment. Sask Power now needs to adopt a feed-in tariff, such as in Ontario and elsewhere, so that people making the capital investment are paid a fair fee for any excess electricity.  Sask Power already purchases 13 percent of its electricity (460 megawatts) from industry, mostly from cogeneration stations. It should also purchase from farmers, co-ops, small businesses, Indigenous communities, towns, villages and homeowners prepared to help “green the grid”.

The other institution we visited was the Renaissance Retirement Residence in downtown Regina.  The building provided their own tour-guide, who took us to the roof to see 30 solar thermal collectors used to heat water for space heating and hot water. He said if they had more room on the roof, “we could use 100 collectors.” He then took us to the basement to see what happens to the solar-heated water, explaining they had three boilers, one to store the thermal-heated water, another using ground-source heat and a third gas-fired boiler as back-up. He thought they acquired about 35% of their heated water from solar.

STUDENTS LEADING THE WAY

Saskatchewan’s per capita greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are amongst the highest in the world; 72 tonnes compared to a global average of 4 tonnes. Forty percent of these come from the oil and gas industry and one-quarter come from electrical generating plants. Using solar energy for heating or electricity will begin to cut these emissions down and move us towards a more sustainable society. If every building followed the lead of the Renaissance Retirement Residence the reduction in GHGs would be substantial. So why don’t our building codes require the installation of both thermal and PV solar upfront? If these were included in construction or installed through upgrading buildings the savings from the reduced demand for fossil fuels would reduce operating costs and emissions, providing both a public and private benefit.

Students at Regina’s Campbell Collegiate didn’t wait for changes in policy. We didn’t get to see the solar thermal system installed on the roof of this high school after students raised money for the project. But the whole school system should follow the lead of these students, who were awarded a Saskatchewan Environmental Network (SEN) Activist Award this year.

Once we stop thinking that electricity comes from a light-switch, and that heat comes from a thermostat and realize the capital and ecological costs of our unsustainable energy, we become more motivated to conserve. Conservative estimates are that through better construction, more energy efficient technology and being conscientious, we could all conserve around 30% of the energy we presently, wastefully, consume. So before anyone considers a small solar system they will want to take action to reduce their demand; then the solar system won’t have to be as big and costly. This is a vital aspect of what’s called demand-side management (DSM).

Regina and region is one of the sunniest places in Canada. Kelln Solar, one of the sponsors of the tour, reminds us that if every home just had a small 1 kW PV system, requiring 5 panels covering about 50 square feet, it could generate 1361 kWh of electricity per year from the 5.5 average hours of sunlight. This alone would provide more than two months of the average household consumption of electricity per year. With conservation measures the percentage of electricity coming from solar will increase. Use of trackers to keep PV panels facing the sun’s rays will further increase solar production. Expanding the use of thermal panels for heating water will accelerate the shift from non-renewables. And remember, though one of the windiest in-land regions in all Canada, we have barely begun to harvest wind power. The solar tour showed the potential is there; it is political will and enlightened policies that lag.

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