City looks to residential renewable energy

‘It’s a natural for Calgary,’ says alderman of rooftop solar panels

Standing on the sidewalk in front of his brown-and-brick Oakridge home, David Kelly explains his work in Calgary’s energy industry. He’s not talking about oil and gas, but another energy source of which Calgary has an abundance — a clean, renewable source often neglected in favour of its fossil fuel brethren.

“[We’re] the sunniest major city in Canada,” says Kelly. Calgary is hit by at least some sun an average of 333 days a year, according to Environment Canada, just one day shy of 11 months.

As rainclouds clear overhead, Kelly gestures towards a trio of solar panels lying inconspicuously on his black-shingled roof. Two thermal panels capture light that heats more than half his family’s hot water. Immediately to the left, a larger rectangular panel of photovoltaic cells generates about half the electricity used in his home each year. “Last month our bill was under $10 from Enmax,” says Kelly.

Installing a system like Kelly’s only takes a couple days. Before that can happen, however, a homeowner currently has to go through a cumbersome and costly application process to buy a development permit from the city. “It really discourages people,” Kelly says. His company, Sedmek Inc. Renewable Energy Systems, installs systems like these throughout the city, and he says getting the development permit can take anywhere between one to two months. “The delay at city hall, because of their shortage of staff, really slows down the process,” he says.

That deterrent may soon be removed. Following up on a city council motion by Ald. Bob Hawkesworth, the city’s planning commission approved a new solar policy and bylaw changes August 21 after some brief discussion about the esthetics of solar panels. If the changes are approved by council in October, putting solar panels on the roof will be as easy as building a fence or a deck. “It’s about time,” says Ald. Druh Farrell, who supported the changes at the planning commission meeting. “This is a natural for Calgary.”

Hawkesworth suggested the changes to council partly because of regulations passed by the province earlier this year that ensure homeowners will be paid for any excess renewable energy — including solar and wind — they feed into the grid. “I felt that we needed to support that initiative and reduce barriers at the city of Calgary as well,” says Hawkesworth.

Currently, renewable energy-using homeowners around the province can contribute power to the grid, but they may or may not be compensated, depending on the power company. Some companies, explains Kelly, use “latched meters” that record how much energy you use, but not how much you contribute. “It only turns their way,” he says. “So you can feed your electricity, solar, back onto the grid. You can slow your meter down. You can stop your meter but you can’t turn it backwards. So they’ll gladly steal the power but they won’t give you any credit for it.”

Other companies like ENMAX already pay homeowners for energy they contribute. Kelly says ENMAX buys power from him at the retail rate — about 13.5 cents per kilowatt hour. In Ontario, the province buys power from solar-users for more than three times that price: 42 cents per kilowatt hour. The Liberal government there introduced that program in 2006 as a way to encourage more small-scale renewable energy projects.

Residential customers consume about 30 per cent of Calgary’s total power usage, and the total amount of energy being consumed in Calgary households continues to rise, according to the city. Through its ImagineCalgary plan, the city has aspired to almost one-third of the city’s energy coming from renewable sources by the year 2036. “This is technology that’s quite new to Calgary and certainly not used widely, and we want to encourage more use of solar panels,” says Farrell.

Kelly says a thermal solar system like the one on his house costs around $7,000. Solar electrical systems are significantly more expensive, costing about $10,000 per kilowatt of power (Kelly’s system is two kilowatts). He estimates the thermal systems pay for themselves in 12 to 15 years, while the photovoltaic systems pay for themselves in 20-plus years, depending on electricity prices.

When asked when solar power will become mainstream, Kelly answers without hesitation. “It is mainstream everywhere else in the world,” he says, adding Canada’s been slow to pick up on it because energy here has been so cheap for so long. “But energy gets to be expensive and people start going, ‘oh, maybe I should think about this and not build a 20,000 square foot house.’”

Kelly isn’t worried by concerns about the appearance of solar panels. “Get used to it,” he says. “I mean, what are the esthetics of a power line?” Farrell agrees that evidence of renewable energy generation should be visible throughout the city. “We’ve got one of the sunniest cities in North America,” she says. “It should just be part of the landscape.”

Alberta’s new renewable energy regulations come into effect January 1 of next year.

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