By David Dodge and Duncan Kinney
Karl Kovacs’ bungalow in the Argyll neighbourhood is like many other Edmonton homes – a small front stoop and a tidy front yard on a pleasant tree-lined street. Yet Kovacs’ home offers something different. On his roof, glinting in the bright spring sunshine, are 24 solar-electric modules that generate electricity for the Kovacs’ home.
“This has been something that has been brewing in my head for 20 years. I think since I bought my house. I have always loved solar. I was tinkering around with solar kits when I was a kid at science fairs,” explained Kovacs. “I am also very passionate about the environment.”
Being enthusiastic about solar, doesn’t make it easy to invest in solar. Over the years, Kovacs has made several attempts to install a system on this own. He found it was complicated, expensive, and rife with red tape. That was until last October when Kovacs stumbled upon a solution.
“It was through an internet search. I found this program called … Generate Choice from EasyMax. They had this program running in Calgary and I started pestering them and endlessly calling them until they came and took a look and said yes we’ll do it. That’s how I got involved. This was last October. They did the installation, start to finish in October.”
Off the Shelf Solar Systems
One of Enmax’s goals with the Generate Choice program was to remove every hurdle for consumers who want to invest in solar energy. It’s Alberta’s first “off the shelf” solar program. The process is meant to be as simple as walking into your local grocery store, picking a solar system off the shelf, and plugging it in at home. Or perhaps even a little easier – as there’s no heavy lugging involved.
One of the key objectives is to ensure the program handles the additional costs and permits that often surprise homeowners installing renewable energy systems, says Rob Harris, vice president of distributed generation at Enmax.
Enmax has designed the program so that interested homeowners, whether they are Enmax customers or not, can simply contact Enmax and ask to enroll in the Generate Choice program. Enmax conducts an initial evaluation to determine that the home and the homeowner are suitable candidates for solar. Once this is complete and the lease agreement is signed Enmax looks after the rest: securing permits, installation, and maintenance.
More than just hanging up a shingle
Enmax’s decision to bring solar electricity into the mainstream in Alberta was no minor task. Assisted with $14.5 million in funding form the Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation (CCEMC) Enmax set out to install 8,300 solar-electric systems and 700 wind-electric systems on homes across Alberta.
Prior to this program the only way to put solar electricity on your roof was to hire one of a few solar installers to design, get permits and install your solar system.
The top three barriers to installing solar electricity in Alberta
According to John Rilett, the director of Residential Market Development with Enmax, the top three barriers in Alberta are: permitting, connection to the grid, and customer awareness.
If you consider that every single municipality in Alberta has a permitting process for any alterations to houses and that most of them have little or no awareness of solar-electric systems you begin to sense of the scale of the challenge.
Enmax says Calgary has bylaws and can now approve solar systems in about 24 hours. Mark Harrison of the City of Edmonton says they are working on improving Edmonton’s process. He says it currently takes anywhere from “two days to a week.”
And Medicine Hat, Alberta boasts they can provide you will solar permits in less than one hour if you bring them the right paperwork.
In order for Enmax to pull this off they need a web of qualified installers, reliable suppliers and distributors and customers.
Enmax partnered with SAIT Polytechnic in Calgary to offer a three-day solar training course. Technicians spent two days in the classroom and a third day working hands-on with the system components (solar-electric modules, inverters, racking, wiring, breakers) inorder to ensure there would be an adequate supply of trained technicians.
It took time for Enmax to sort out some of the mass-system permitting factors in Edmonton but that didn’t bother Karl Kovacs.
“[Enmax] handled everything… they took care of getting the installers, getting the permits and doing work that I don’t have the time to do. Or the knowledge to do.”
While Enmax’s program is certainly ambitious we should point out there are qualified local solar contractors all over Alberta.
How do I sell my extra energy?
It’s pretty simply really. Your solar-electric system is plugged into the house, and your house into the grid with a two-way meter that measures the flow of electricity coming into and out of your home.
So how much do you get paid for the electricity you produce? It’s simple, you get paid per kilowatt hour the same price that you pay on your bill per kWh. For example, if you pay 8 cents/kWh then that’s how much you would get paid for the solar electricity you export into the grid.
However, when you buy electricity from the grid you also pay an additional 3-4 cents per kWh in delivery charges. So all in, you pay around 12 cents to buy and you get 8 cents when you sell. When you have your own solar system it makes sense to use as much of the electricity you generate as possible. Instead of making hay while while the sun shines perhaps you could run your dishwasher or do your laundry..
A good price?
A basic 1.3 kilowatt (kW) Enmax solar-electric system that has six modules can be purchased for zero down, but the best value is to put $3,500 down and pay $17 per month in lease costs over the 15-year period of the lease. You then purchase the system outright for $350 at the end of the lease.
Not only do you show leadership in supporting clean energy, you reduce your greenhouse gas emissions and help build the capacity of all of Alberta’s solar-electric companies (Enmax and many others) to install, service and connect solar-electric systems.
The math is quite straight forward: four of these six-module solar systems will provide most of Karl Kovacs and his family with their modest electricity needs
The bottom line is this is a good price that allows Albertans to dip their toes into solar electricity with few hassles at a level they are comfortable with.
Will it save me money?
Solar energy expert Gordon Howell told Green Energy Futures that this solar-electric system will pay for itself, even in Alberta, but over a long period of time, perhaps 25 to 30 years at present prices.
In Alberta, dirtier sources of electricity such as coal are still priced cheaply in the marketplace so the costs of mitigating pollution are not included in the price. Still taxpayers are beginning to pay the price with expensive carbon fees, carbon capture and storage programs and health care costs. There are also benefits in diversifying our energy supply and diversifying our economy.
With about 180 Enmax systems installed in Alberta the market is still very small, but as Rilett explains Enmax hopes they are setting the groundwork to move the solar industry ahead for everyone in Alberta.
Most people installing solar today in Alberta are doing it to play a leadership role and as Medicine Hat orthodontist Dr. Keith King told us to “do the right thing.” The return on investment is leadership, reduced pollution and support of the clean energy industry.
Harris says investing in a solar system has nothing to do with cost, and everything to do with emotions. “I have a system. I feel pride when I drive up and see it on my roof.”
Karl Kovacs agrees, “My neighbour across the street works for EPCOR, he’s been up here and looked at this. He thinks this is an amazing idea. All my neighbours love this. There’s constant kudos on the installation and the system.”