Exploring your options for solar and wind power

Research renewable energy solutions for your home

By Jay Somerset

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Solar basics

Solar energy can be divided into three types: passive solar (heat generated when the sun shines on your home’s south-facing windows); solar thermal (mainly used to heat small spaces or outdoor swimming pools); and photovoltaic, or PV (what most people mean by solar electricity).

PV systems are typically mounted on rooftops. When sunlight hits the solar array (a series of connected PV cells), it converts the light into electricity through an inverter. What happens next depends on whether the solar set-up is on or off the grid.

The traditional picture of solar is on a remote cabin in the woods. “In a scenario in which it costs $35,000 to bring in power lines, it makes sense to install your own system and generate your own power,” says McMonagle. Canadian Tire sells off-grid solar systems for weekend use; the idea is that the system powers up batteries during the week, which you then use during the weekend. These systems cost $2,500 to $15,000, depending on the size.

Then there are grid-tied systems. “These work in one of two ways,” says McMonagle. “The first is net metering: you connect your solar system to your hydro meter, and when you generate power, your meter runs backward. During the day, when the sun shines–10 per cent sunlight is sufficient for the panels to work–you run the meter backward. And at night, you use grid power. This is how most grid-tied systems work in North America. There are no subsidies with net metering and you’re not selling electricity to the utility company. You’re only deferring your costs.”

Still, it’s quite a treat to see your meter run backward. Toronto resident Dave Ullrich remembers the first day his solar system began operating. “I came home and saw that the meter had run backward–it was pretty cool,” says Ullrich, a former musician who now runs an independent music distribution website. His highest daily output: 12 kilowatts. “We’ve only received a few bills, but the first one was about a third lower than for the same time last year.”

Like most of us, Ullrich knew few details about solar-power use. “Then I read a tiny piece in the newspaper about a community group holding a meeting on grid-tied systems,” he says. “There were about 200 of us listening to someone explain how they work, how they attach to the roof, the cost–all the usual questions. By the end of the meeting, 75 of us were pretty much convinced it was a great idea.”

A few months later, Ullrich installed a two-kilowatt system on his roof. “I have a flat roof, free from obstructions like trees, which is perfect,” he says. The inverter is tied into Ullrich’s standard electrical panel. “It cost us about $17,000 with installation, but we got a price break because there were 75 houses in the neighbourhood that signed up.” Ullrich’s neighbourhood is one of two Toronto communities with a large solar-powered base. Ullrich and crew are so satisfied with the results, they set up a website called Our Power so that people can read about solar power from regular people. “Before I went to that meeting, I had no idea this was something a regular person could do–that it was part of the here and now,” says Ullrich.

The Our Power website gives examples of two other systems, both one-kilowatt, and both costing about $10,000 with installation. Again, this is with a group rebate, so a more realistic price is $12,000. Canadian Tire has a special website set up to give you an idea of cost and return on investment. Using resources on the website you can estimate your power needs and what conversion will likely cost. A two-kilowatt grid-tied solar system will likely cost about $29,210, with an annual savings of $1,814 and a return on investment of six per cent. In 16 years, you’ll have paid for the system through net metering.

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