Alberta producers asking big questions about solar power

There’s huge interest in this technology and issues such as payback, 
fixed costs, and government programs are top of mind

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There’s no doubt that the government of Alberta is betting big on renewable energy.

The goal is to get 30 per cent of Alberta’s electricity needs from renewable energy by 2030, and it earmarked $5.5 million last year to help farms and municipalities develop solar power projects.

With that kind of big money comes big questions, and farmers throughout the province have a lot of them. Just ask Rob Harlan, executive director of the Solar Energy Society of Alberta, a longtime advocate for the solar power industry. In his four decades of experience in the industry, Harlan has never seen so much interest in photovoltaic (PV) systems.

“Producers want to know what kind of an economic investment it is,” he said. “They have concerns about longevity of systems, durability, the effects of hail and snow – a lot of very practical questions about how they operate and how durable they are.”

Key concerns

Not surprisingly, one of the most common questions is if or when a solar array is going to pay for itself.

“It’s a long-term investment,” said Harlan. “I’ve seen payback times for farmers somewhere in the 10- to 15-year payback period. That’s acceptable to a number of farmers who are not shy about making long-term investments. For others, that’s a little too long.”

A solar system will almost always be a good investment when compared to paying rising utility rates, he said.

“You’re basically locking in your electrical rates. If you look at it over a 25- or 30-year period it’s definitely cheaper than just paying utility bills that are going up and up.”

Another concern is the durability. Solar modules are generally designed to be quite hardy when it comes to weather, said Harlan. Even though there are some obvious issues such as snow, they’re not necessarily as limiting as some might think.

“If the modules get covered with snow, the light is blocked so of course they temporarily don’t function,” he said. “However, the times of the year solar modules would be covered with snow — December through February — is the time of year when less light is available so they’re less productive anyway.”

The angle of a solar array can have a big effect on the productivity during winter. Harlan cites a NAIT study that compared six different angles of solar power modules over the course of five years.

“At the shallower angles — say at a three-in-12 or four-in-12 pitched roof which you might find on a barn — snow probably decreased the productivity of the array by four to five per cent over a period of a year,” he said. “As you steepen the angles those numbers get much better.

“Often what we find with farm applications, especially if they’re ground mounted, is that we can get them tilted up at a pretty good angle.”

A rough rule of thumb is to match the angle to the degrees latitude of your location.

“In Alberta that usually means a 50- to 54-degree tilt up. In that range the snow tends to slough off over time, especially in some milder days during the winter.”

In some cases snow can actually improve the productivity.

“If there’s a white surface in front of the solar array, the light gets reflected off of it,” said Harlan. “So if you have a pond or snow in front of your array it’s going to increase the amount of light actually hitting the solar modules because of the reflection.”

Solar modules are proving to be very durable when it comes to hail.

“It’s very rare for hail to damage solar modules and we certainly have some significant hailstorms in our province. They’re tested in the factory to meet test conditions that are equivalent to one-inch hail hitting the module at 88 kilometres per hour vertically when the module is in a cold condition.”

Lightning is generally not an issue, he added.

“They’re grounded at the pole, so the equipment itself is grounded. The modules are very long lived — I have some myself that I purchased 41 years ago that are still operating. If you look at the studies on the subject, after 25 years most solar arrays are at about 88 per cent of their original specs. The degradation process is quite slow. This is the reason that standard solar module production warranties guarantee at least 80 per cent of factory ratings for 25 years.”

Other issues

There are some questions Harlan does not have the answers to.

A big concern for many producers is fixed charges by transmission and distribution wire owners. These charges are not reduced when utility users start reducing their consumption or generating their own electricity.

“In Alberta, there are portions of the distribution and transmission charges in the bill that are fixed fees based on your transformer size and other factors,” said Harlan. “If you make energy changes on your farm, ideally that would be reflected all the way across the board in terms of reducing the amount of your bill.”

It’s a situation Harlan would like to see remedied, but until that point, he said inflexible fixed rates will remain an “institutional disincentive” towards on-farm renewable energy development.

“It doesn’t mean that we should remove all fixed costs — somebody has to pay for the maintenance of a utility system,” he said. “And because there are less people in rural areas, farmers take more of the brunt in terms of the costs of the distribution and transmission infrastructure than urban dwellers do. What I think is fair is to make more of those costs flexible so as you use less electricity you get more savings.”

Harlan said there has been a slight drop-off in interest in solar power in recent months due to uncertainty over government programs designed to assist producers wanting to connect solar systems to the electrical grid.

“Programs have been starting and stopping,” he said. “All of that is being settled and the province is making clear that within the month of June all of the specifics of the three programs that farmers will be eligible for — the Residential and Commercial Solar program and the federal Growing Forward 2 On-Farm Solar Photovoltaic program and the Growing Forward 2 On-Farm Energy Management program — will be identified.”

Harlan’s workshops cover the basics of hooking up to the electrical grid as a solar generator in Alberta. They will continue on request until March 1, 2018. If you are an individual representing a municipality or agriculture association that is interested in holding a workshop, contact Jason Price with the Growing Forward 2 On-Farm Energy Management Program at [email protected].

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