I expected 19 people from Regina’s annual solar-solstice tour. When I walked up from the coulee where I was clearing brush I found 50 filling the driveway and a huge stagecoach parked beyond our gate. With such public interest why is Saskatchewan such a difficult place to make the transition to clean, sustainable energy?
We now have a full year’s experience producing renewable electricity, so in preparation for our solar tourists I reflected on what I’d learned, what I might do differently and how to encourage the province to better embrace renewables.
Last May we installed a Skystream 3.7 wind turbine on a 35 foot tower atop the hill behind our house in the Qu’Appelle Valley. The turbine, with fiberglass blades on a head which rotates to find the wind, starts at 8 mph with peak production of 2,400 watts. This sounds like a lot until you realize how variable the wind is, even on the edge of the Qu’Appelle Valley. I’ve learned much about the wind. Sometimes, the turbine is turning so fast that I can still hear its’ whine as I walk up the coulee out of sight of the tower. When I return a little later the blades may be motionless.
Because of wind’s variability we also installed 5 solar panels on a tracker that follows the sun and can produce 1,075 watts. I’m learning that the variability isn’t just seasonal but is also climactic. We’ve noticed that since we built our passive solar house the number of days with overcast has grown. In the winter we burn more wood when it’s overcast and around zero than when the sun is brightly shining at 30 below. And now we’ve found that the overcast affects our solar-electrical output too.
Wind production steadily increased last fall and winter, while solar electricity declined. Last August, with less than one-half the capacity (1,075 to 2,200 watts) our solar panels were producing as much as the wind. Yet, last December, around the shortest day of the year, wind was producing 5 times the electricity coming from solar.
I’m therefore glad I didn’t take the advice to go all solar, for the wind accounted for 3,200 of the 5,000 kWh produced in a year. Installing a much larger solar system could produce this much but the output would vary more by seasons. I’m also glad that I didn’t passively accept the “truism” that solar is much more expensive than wind. After subtracting the SRC grant (35% of installation costs), the solar system cost us around $7,000 and the wind $15,000. When you look at output, which is around 2:1 for wind, the cost per kWh is very close. I also found that it isn’t true that solar is “maintenance free”; so far all our problems have been with the tracker and the force of the wind on the panels.
But I’m glad we installed a hybrid system, for wind and solar can be complementary. When we go to bed to sleep through the long winter nights I can sometimes (barely) hear the wind turbine churning out electricity. A disproportionate amount of the excess electricity we produce, which goes on the grid to our neighbours and builds up our Sask Power credit, comes from this night-time production, when the solar panels are also “asleep”.
I haven’t re-calculated the payback time for our investment, but as the price of electricity continues to rise the time-period will certainly shorten. But if our first year is any indication it will be many years before our electrical bill savings add up to the $22,000. And then there are the maintenance costs that will come with time.
However, I didn’t do this because I thought we were going to immediately save money. My main reason was to demonstrate to ourselves and any other parties who cared what was required to move energy usage towards sustainability.
Most Saskatchewan electricity still comes from coal plants and “clean coal” is going to be an expensive oxymoron. Both coal and nuclear will become obsolete. Interestingly, SNC-Lavalin, which the province contracted to sequester carbon at the Boundary Dam, now also owns the AECL. Also, it is now being investigated for unexplained payments to Libya under Gaddafi’s rule.
Our province has the highest per capita carbon footprint in all Canada, and probably the world, in part due to its dependence on coal. The expanding oil and gas industry is also a major contributor to our record-breaking pollution. For every 1,000 watts per hour (kWh) of electricity that comes from renewables you prevent about 1 pound of carbon that would be produced from coal plants. So what delights me most is that, in our first year, we produced the equivalent of about 80% of what we used, which translates into about 5,000 pounds of carbon not going into the atmosphere. People still ask me whether I am bothered by the whine of the wind generator. I usually reply that we can surely accept the immediate feedback of cleaner energy (some noise) instead of carrying on with the “out of sight, out of mind” approach which accepts strip mining and air and water contamination when it’s “Not in My Back Yard” (NIMBY). And the newer wind turbines apparently will have little or no noise pollution.
Our goal is to produce the equivalent of what we use. This will require more conservation from switching to more LED lights and more energy efficient appliances, which is actually cheaper than installing more capacity. Our passive solar house has already greatly reduced our carbon footprint. If the sun is shining it takes no fuel at all (wood or gas) to keep our house at 70 degrees when it’s minus 30 outside. As we move further towards zero carbon electricity, our car will remain the biggest carbon culprit. It’s hard to imagine that because the carbon in gas combines with oxygen during combustion that a 6 pound gallon of gas turns into 20 pounds of carbon spewing out of the exhaust pipe as we head down the highway. And most of the energy from internal combustion is actually waste heat, which isn’t used to motor on at all.
Like the other 200 plus people who have net-metering agreements with Sask Power, we remain in a bit of a catch-22. Sask Power gives credit for electricity we put on the grid. Yearly they subtract what went on from what we took off the grid and only charge if there is an excess from them. But they don’t give credit or purchase any excess from us. There’s a policy double standard and there’s no incentive to produce more than we use.
Many other jurisdictions adopted feed-in tariffs where small producers are guaranteed a price per kWh that will cover the installation costs and return some income. Such a policy reduces the huge capital costs of installing new capacity for the crown utility. If Sask Power had a feed-in tariff they might also avoid putting in costly, higher voltage lines to bring in more coal-generated electricity from afar to meet rising regional demand. This would be both economically and environmentally prudent.
Thinking ahead we installed a larger cable than now required along the 250 foot trench to the wind turbine. If a feed-in tariff comes we can add another wind tower. With this and expanded solar panels we could produce enough electricity for our neighbours and become a carbon-free coulee. And perhaps someday, a carbon-free village or town or city! And so on! This matter is beyond our immediate control and becomes a political-policy matter. We’ll all have to keep working both personally and politically if we are going to make it to a sustainable society.