Navigating Alberta’s solar energy boom

Experts weigh in with some best practices for installing solar energy arrays — and getting the job done right

This 9.8-kilowatt system was installed on a farm in Flagstaff County in 2012.
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Interest in solar energy on farms and ranches is reaching a fever pitch, thanks in large part to the provincial government’s $5.5-million commitment in February to help farms and municipalities connect solar panels to the electrical grid.

And farmers are not the only ones taking notice. With the decline of Alberta’s oil sector, there are a lot of people jumping on the renewable energy bandwagon in search of the next big thing.

“Right now the solar business is growing very quickly — there are a lot of people interested in getting into the field,” said Rob Harlan, executive director of the Solar Energy Society of Alberta, which has been promoting understanding and use of solar energy for the past 40 years.

As a result, some installers are more qualified than others and it’s up to the consumer to figure out which ones will do the best work for the most comparable rates.

“Alberta’s in an interesting situation,” said Harlan. “Up until recently solar power hasn’t been a gigantic money-maker so the people who have been involved in the industry for some time really believe in it, which is good.

“But as we enter a phase where there is a lot of government support, it gets a little more unstable because you have a lot of new folks entering the business. That’s the path Alberta has to traverse as it attempts to rapidly grow its renewable energy industry.”

Hire or install yourself?

Many producers will want to install solar panel arrays themselves to save money, but Harlan doesn’t recommend this.

“Unless they have exceptional abilities or are electricians themselves, we encourage them to utilize an established Alberta solar installing business,” he said.

“There is a significant level of expertise required and safety issues are involved. There’s a national electric code that applies to solar systems. Also, the Growing Forward 2 grant program provides a higher rate if you hire an established solar business than if you do it yourself.”

Producers who are trained electricians should study the section of the Canadian Electrical Code on photovoltaics.

“That section of the code changes every three years because the technologies are changing so rapidly,” he said. “They should also only put in Canadian Standards Association-approved equipment because the inspector will not pass anything that is not CSA approved. They should research any equipment they put in to make sure it’s high quality.”

Starland County has been promoting solar energy for several years, and economic development officer Jordan Webber has helped many producers with their solar energy systems.

“To maximize your efficiency your best bet is to face your panels true south with very little shading from morning and afternoon sun,” he said. “In general, if you have a shop that’s capable of carrying the weight, a roof-mount system is going to be cheaper than a ground-mount system because with a ground-mount system you actually have to build the framework to hold it up. If you have a south-facing roof, a roof-mount system will be more cost effective.”

The amount of electricity production depends on the space you have available, he said.

“In Starland County, for example, we are installing an average of 10 kilowatts per farm. A 260-watt panel in rough measurements is 3×5 feet. For 10 kilowatts there would be 40 of them. If you were doing one line, 40 panels in a row would be 120 feet long. If you do two rows they would be 60 feet long.”

The total (materials, labour and permits) for a ground-mounted 10-kilowatt array would be about $35,000. A suitable south-facing roof that can support the array can cut that cost by about $5,000.

The Growing Forward grant, which is expected to reopen shortly, would cover $4,500 of the cost of a 10-kilowatt array. (For more info, go to

Providers and payback

Be cautious when hiring, said Webber.

“The industry is very young with lots of new companies out there,” he said. “The vast majority of companies is almost too new — you just have to be quite a bit more careful than in some of the other industries.”

Harlan’s organization has a list of solar installers at and their credentials.

“You want to find out a number of things about the businesses, how many systems they’ve put in, how long they’ve been in business, what kind of warranties they offer and the kind of training they have,” said Harlan. “All of these things they can find out in the directory.”

Get at least two or three bids before making a decision, he said.

“Also, don’t hire someone unless they come to your site and look at the specifics of your site. This is because they need to choose the best place for the solar array, where the inverter goes, and those kinds of things.”

One of the most frequent questions Harlan gets from producers is the kind of return on investment they can expect from installing a solar system. There are too many factors at play to provide a precise figure, but having solar power means your electrical rates are locked in.

“Because the investment is up front you know basically what your price per kilowatt hour is going to be for the next 25 years,” said Harlan. “It’s a stable investment in that sense. You don’t get your money back in three years, but farmers are used to that kind of thing.”

Because solar energy is such a young industry in Alberta, there are not a lot of resources available to help producers with the installation process. However, Webber said producers can always contact himself, Harlan or some of the more experienced installers if they hit a snag.

Producers should be mindful of their electrical service provider’s legislated responsibilities when it comes to connecting a solar system to the grid, Webber said.

“Ever since the Micro-Generation Act was brought out in January 2009 it is a very simple, straightforward process. It governs that if we meet Canadian standards the service providers have to accept us.”

Webber predicts the province will soon see a large growth in technical resources.

“What you’re going to see is that a resource like me is going to be available in municipalities very shortly,” he said. “That will be an awesome thing for the industry and obviously for farmers. They should be in contact with their municipalities because some are starting to get that in place. If they don’t, it’s nice for the municipalities to know there’s a need.”

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