Solar a natural fit for Calgary

CALGARY, ALBERTA - There are bright ideas and then there are ideas that just make sense.

Calgary is about to make it easier for residents to put solar panels on their homes, clearing the way to an energy source that's clean, renewable and well-suited to this sun-filled city.

On August 21, Calgary's planning commission approved a new policy to remove the need for development permits to install solar panels.

The change needs to be approved by council this fall, but shows all signs of going ahead.

Tim Schulhauser, a photo-voltaic technician with solar energy company Sedmek Inc., says it could help streamline the solar installation process.

"We've had quite a few projects delayed this summer because of development permits," he says, adding the permits can cost up to $3,000 and take weeks to procure.

"This would bring down the cost and speed things along."

The city's action is well-timed, as the solar power industry is currently growing by 30% to 40% a year and breaking into new technologies that will soon make solar panels lighter, cheaper and more efficient.

It's also just as the province has passed legislation requiring energy companies to pay residents for the renewable energy they feed back into the grid.

Until now, some companies, such as Enmax, have paid customers for their surplus power, but others have simply taken the electricity without offering compensation.

It's about time Calgarians who create green energy get rewarded.

Until now, it seems they've just been getting headaches.

In addition to the expense of installing solar power – anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000-plus, depending on the system – eco-minded homeowners have to do enormous amounts of hoop-jumping and red tape-dodging to do their good deed.

Perhaps this is why solar power has been slow to catch on here, in comparison to Europe and parts of the U.S., where government incentives and paybacks have helped boost it into the mainstream.

Ontario, for example, has begun buying solar power from users for $0.42 per kilowatt hour, as opposed to the $0.13 rate for regular grid power.

This means an efficient solar-powered household – pumping surplus solar energy into the grid by day and using small amounts of lower-priced grid energy at night – can actually turn an annual profit of $2,000 or more.

Policies like this are causing surges in solar power popularity and getting the business world on side.

Just this week, investors gave two thin film solar companies major cash infusions.

California's Nonosolar pulled in $300 million, while Colorado's AVA Solar brought in $104 million.

But how long will it be before the average person can afford to get their electricity from the sun?

The Economist recently predicted the price of solar technology would remain high until the price of silicon falls.

"Happily, it seems likely to do so soon," the magazine reported, noting silicon output for solar uses could nearly double next year.

Based on information from New Energy Finance, a research firm, silicon prices should fall 40% next year, then over 70% by 2015, as new sources come online.

As it is, U.S. Department of Energy reports the cost of making a one-watt solar cell has gone from $50 two decades ago to under $3 today.

Combine this with the rising price of conventional energy, Schulhauser says, and it's only a matter of time before solar power is on par – or cheaper – than electricity from the grid.

"Grid parity in Europe is expected to be in about five years," he says. "It will take longer here, where our electricity is less expensive, but it's not that far down the road."

And how much power can solar technology actually supply? According to the U.S. energy department, the solar energy in a 100-sq.-mile area of Nevada could supply all the energy needs of the United States – a country with 10 times Canada's population.

It seems solar energy is going to be increasingly more relevant as time goes on.

Here in Calgary, where there's sun about 333 days of the year, according to Environment Canada, we're in a great position to take advantage of it.

It's heartening to see our city offering some modest encouragement to the trailblazers who are championing this rising technology.


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