Jackie Forrest is Executive Director of ARC’s Energy Research Institute and co-host of ARC Energy Ideas Podcasta weekly presentation explaining the latest trends and news in Canadian energy and beyond.
Installing solar panels on rooftops to produce electricity is still very rare – only about one in 30 homes own it in the United States and one in every 300 homes here in Canada. However, they will become increasingly popular over the next decade and for reasons you might not expect.
The single solar panels are the size of a picnic table top. When the sun shines on a special material, it converts the sun’s energy into electricity. The energy is then transmitted over copper wires to the house to power lights, heat ovens, and charge electric cars.
A typical home solar system has 20 to 30 panels on the roof. When the sun is shining, the amount of electricity generated can be five to 10 times more than a home’s consumption. When a home produces more electricity than it needs, the excess energy on the copper wires flows to other homes.
Traditionally, homeowners have installed solar panels to reduce utility bills, because they do not need to purchase the same amount of electricity from the power company. And when the sun really does shine, they can also sell the electricity back to the utilities and make money.
Of course, one limitation is that solar energy is only available when the sun is shining. Solar panels can run your air conditioner on a sunny day, but they don’t generate electricity at night when you want to cook a late dinner or watch TV. There is also the challenge of seasonality: while large amounts of electricity are generated during Canada’s long summer days, much less energy is produced during the short, bleak winter days.
Battery storage is the solution to extending the time solar energy is available to the homeowner. Storage system will be charged at sunset; In the evening, the homeowner can run his appliances from a large battery stored in the basement or garage.
While home solar and integrated battery systems are still rare, sales are beginning to increase in places like Texas and California. These countries have suffered from extended power outages due to severe weather. Instead of sitting in the dark, people with home solar and battery systems can reliably use electricity, day and night.
While the two countries have been experiencing the most extreme weather-related blackouts recently, climate change is expected to make these disruptive events more frequent and widespread over the coming decades. So to ensure safe, reliable and affordable energy, it is likely that more homeowners will want to install solar panels and battery systems in the future.
Another trend that will boost rooftop solar is an increase in the number of people buying electric cars. While the main reason people buy electric vehicles is for commuting, a car battery can also provide back-up power to the home when you need it.
For example, the battery in the Ford F-150 Lightning electric truck is advertised to run a whole house for three days and last 10 days if people rationalize their energy use. The duration will be extended even further if the house has rooftop solar, as the truck’s battery will be charged when the solar panels generate electricity during the day. While not all electric vehicle manufacturers offer a home-powered option today, it will likely become a standard feature over the next several years.
The way you pay for rooftop solar has been another barrier to its adoption. Installing solar panels can cost a homeowner in the order of $20,000. Currently, the federal government supports $5,000 of this cost through the Greener Homes Grant. But even with government help, most people cannot afford to pay this amount up front.
However, financing options are starting to change. In Europe and the United States, loan programs that offer options such as “zero” financing make solar panels more affordable. More flexible funding is likely to arrive in Canada in the near future.
To pave the way for small-scale adoption of solar energy, governments at all levels – from provinces to municipalities – as well as utilities and local distribution companies need to remove barriers. For example, jurisdictions such as Nova Scotia have considered charging homeowners additional fees to sell energy back to the grid. Fortunately, this idea was rejected. In some counties, owners of rooftop solar panels are forced to sell their energy at a discount on what they pay when they buy electricity off the grid. At the local level, cumbersome requirements and processes for obtaining permits can delay applications and leave clients unserved.
While lowering energy bills has been the historical reason for installing rooftop solar, the biggest boost over the next decade may come from insurance against severe weather that can cause blackouts. The free option to use your newly purchased electric vehicle to store batteries at home, along with new financing options will make the systems more accessible.
Peace of mind in getting cheap, clean, safe and reliable energy are powerful incentives to change the way people get electricity.
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