It’s been two years since the provincial government announced its plan to power 30 per cent of Alberta’s electrical grid with renewables by 2030, along with a $5-million commitment to help rural Alberta connect to the solar grid.
There’s been good take-up by producers, says the executive director of the Solar Energy Society of Alberta, which has been tasked with educating farmers about solar energy (including how to tie into the electrical grid and apply for funding).
“We’re seeing continued interest from farmers,” said Rob Harlan. “It looks like we’re entering a period of escalating electricity rates so we anticipate there will be even more interest.
“The majority of the farmers who attend our solar workshops either put in systems or seriously consider it. For some, the economics can do better but I think those will slowly improve over time.”
The society hosts workshops across the province, and one of the most common questions from farmers and other rural landowners is how they can use solar to get off the grid completely.
“That’s an area where we wind up disappointing them because that’s not a very cost-effective thing to do right now,” said Harlan.
“There might be some immediate gratification but it’s expensive to get off the grid. We generally encourage them to stay on the grid and use it to overproduce electricity in the summer and buy it back in the winter — use it as a storage battery, essentially.
“You can also access the provincial incentive programs if you have a grid-based system. Non-grid systems are not eligible.”
Harlan also gets a lot of questions about how long it will take for a system to pay back the investment.
“We give them some general ideas because payback varies tremendously from site to site and utility area to utility area.”
And there are always questions about hail damage to solar modules, he said.
“The answers to that are generally pretty satisfying to them — solar modules are quite resistant to hail.”
Producers who have installed grid-tied systems are sometimes frustrated by electrical providers maintaining their fixed cost payments. Some of these producers feel they should catch a break on these costs because their systems provide electricity back to the grid.
Rural areas tend to bear the brunt of these fixed costs, said Harlan.
“It’s unjust that rural areas pay more for line extensions, for example, because there are less ratepayers in the pool to share the burden. It’s something I hear all the time. I wish we could change it. You’ve got an incentive on one side and a disincentive on the other. That being said, there are a lot of farm systems out there that are having decent paybacks.”
Some on-farm solar entrepreneurs are irritated that provincial solar incentive programs tend to favour systems that only produce as much as they can use, making the development of for-profit solar farms much more expensive due to the absence of cost-share funding.
However, there is a new category under the province’s micro-generation law that might address this concern in some cases.
“There is this category called community generation. I think they’re still working out the details on it,” said Harlan. “It’s designed to allow you to produce more than you use and to have a revenue stream just for that.”
There has also been an increase in eligible electricity production under the micro-gen law. Producers can now install solar capacity of up to five megawatts as long as they already have a system that produces that amount.
“Five megawatts is a gigantic system — that’s solar farm territory.”
As attractive as overproducing may seem, Harlan said it’s not always the best course of action — although with rising power prices it could soon become very profitable.
“Right now if you were to put in a large system and just pump it into the power pool, it’s really hard to justify the investment because power pool prices are so low right now. But as those prices come up — and they will — then it will become much more attractive for people to put in a larger system that overproduces beyond their usage.”
There has been some speculation that on-farm solar development is in a slow period right now due to fewer producers applying for provincial cost-share funding for projects through the On-Farm Solar Photovoltaics program. Economics may be the culprit, with some producers waiting for the potential return on investment to improve, likely through expected power price increases in the province throughout 2018, Harlan said.
Or producers may simply be too busy to apply right now.
“The programs available for farming typically come out in February or March when farmers go into their busy season,” noted Erika Grintals of Lethbridge solar construction company Solar Optix.
Provincial funding for a number of on-farm solar energy projects is available through the On-Farm Solar Photovoltaic program at rates of up to 75 cents per watt for projects 100 kW and under to a maximum of 35 per cent of eligible expenses. Projects in the range of 100.01 to 150 kW are eligible for a provincial cost share of 56 cents per watt to a maximum 27 per cent of eligible expenses. More information is available at the Alberta Agriculture and Forestry website at www.agric.gov.ab.ca.