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So What is All This About Homeowners Re-Selling Solar Energy Back to the Province of Ontario?
What exactly is the new feed in tariff program?
The feed-in tariff program is a way for governments to start the third industrial revolution, which shifts from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.
It usually consists of providing long-term contracts to industry and the public to purchase energy produced by solar, wind, biogas or water production. The agreed prices will be calculated based on the investment and a good return on investment, sufficient to encourage movement.
In our centralized grid-based power system, we will move from large power plants to a distributed power system. For small systems less than 10 Kw this is not a problem, but for larger systems some local economic testing must be done to ensure that it is worthwhile for the utility companies in a particular area to invest in changing the wires and transformers to accept the new power.
How long has this program been running?
The new FIT program started last October. There are two parts, FIT and microFIT for systems less than 10 Kw. The FIT program has been very successful so far and 2,900 Mw of contracts have been signed so far.
Within the microFIT program, the initial goal is around 100,000 homes. About 16,000 applications have been received so far; most of them for ground-mounted agricultural systems. So far, only about 3,500 umbrella contracts have been approved.
How does it benefit Ontario homeowners?
There are two main benefits – directly to the homeowner and then overall to Ontario.
1. First of all, in order to encourage homeowners to participate in the program, the return on investment is set at about 8%. This means you can sign a 20-year contract with the Ontario Power Authority and start a small electricity generation business. The 8% ROI is calculated based on the cost of purchasing and installing a renewable energy system such as solar panels. This is new to the Province and you can expect prices to change as the costs of renewable energy systems fall, but the 8% ROI should remain the same.
2. The big picture is that it drives the renewable energy industry, creating jobs and reducing our carbon footprint. We are going for distributed energy generation from a centralized system so that we negate the need to build new expensive power plants, we can shut down coal plants and reduce the import of expensive and dirty energy during our peak summer loads, thus reducing air pollution and saving money.
How does it actually work?
You have to look at it as a small business that creates strength. It connects to the grid and feeds your neighborhood. The solar panels are placed on the roof, connected to the disconnect switch and then via the production meter to the grid. You will still have your consumption meter for regular use in the day. You will receive a bill of consumption and a check from your LDC for production.
We know how bureaucratic the provinces can be – how complicated is the registration process?
The MicroFIT process for systems below 10kWh is very simple. For the owner of the house, registration is done online. After about 6 weeks comes a response with a conditional offer. The homeowner arranges for the solar panels to be installed, inspections and permits must be completed, then the local electric company hooks up the generation meter and you’re generating! You receive a contractual offer from OPA, which you must agree to within 45 days. Then you wait for the first check. Some systems allow you to monitor your solar panels online so you can see your production hourly, daily, weekly, etc.
What are the best systems?
There are really 6 things that a home owner should pay attention to:
1. Domestic content. First and foremost, it is absolutely imperative that homeowners understand that there is a 60% domestic content requirement, assuring Ontarians that their tax dollars are being kept in Ontario. Currently, off-shore panels are allowed this year, but that will end on December 31, 2010.
2. Quality system. I urge all homeowners to purchase quality Canadian systems that are designed to last.
3. Professional analysis. I also recommend that you ask a professional solar analyst to perform an assessment of your potential solar installation to give you a realistic estimate of performance, as well as details of any installation difficulties that may incur additional costs. You should take all of this into account when calculating your return on investment.
4. Avoid unrealistic ROI. Avoid any vendor that offers you crazy ROI – I’ve seen 25% quoted – it’s completely unrealistic.
5. Research the products. Solar panels come in monocrystalline and polycrystalline formats. Mono is purer silicon and is more expensive, but it is also somewhat more efficient. Polymer board is cheaper, has a shorter lifespan and is usually larger in size. Carbon offset or carbon neutral life means the amount of renewable electricity produced that offsets the amount of carbon produced to make the panel, usually 4 years. Solar panels can be mounted on pitched or flat roofs, ground tracking systems and on poles.
6. System design. There are also several different system designs – micro-inverters where the panel produces 240AC similar to grid and string inverters which are high voltage DC (and very dangerous). The design of the string inverter is similar to Christmas lights, when you pull one out, they all go out. The microinverter design is superior because the shading affects only one plate, instead of all of them. In addition, they broadcast a data signal for web monitoring.
How expensive is it and what is the return on investment?
ROI is typically 8% and systems are typically 100% financed. The system pays for itself within 7-9 years. Homeowners with an average 3 Kw system will generate about $3,000 a year, depending on location and shade. A 3 Kw system will cost about $25,000 installed for an Ontario manufactured system.
How much space does it take up?
Typically you will install on a pitched roof facing south, however SE and SW also work very well. You will want to install as many panels as possible because adding a contract later will require renegotiating your contract.
If you are a farmer with a lot of space, I would consider a tracking system. They are more expensive, but they are also more efficient because they follow the sun.
Do you need a specific roof or structure?
Your roof must be solid. A good analyst will check your roof from the attic. If you have multiple shingles, he/she may recommend a replacement to avoid having to uninstall and reinstall the panels later. Keep in mind that the panels will last longer.
If your roof does not look healthy I would recommend having it inspected by an engineer, it is possible that you may need to install some better support such as rafter blocks.
Can it be placed on the ground?
Absolutely, ground mount systems similar to flat roof systems can point directly south. These are usually ballast type systems which means that the concrete blocks hold the mounting system and the panels are set at an ideal angle. Monitoring pole mounting systems are also available in various sizes up to 10 Kw or around 50 panels.
What maintenance is required for this system?
Normal maintenance would be a once a year check – clean the boards, check that the wiring is good, tighten the screws, etc. Other than that, with no moving parts, the system is mostly maintenance free.
Are the parts freely available?
It depends where you bought them. If you have decided on Ontario made products, which are mandatory next year anyway, parts will not be a problem.
With the amount of technology and innovation coming out every year, how long does it take before this system becomes obsolete?
I ran the Solar Lab, one of only 5 in the world. Trust me you should trust a technology that is tried and true and has been used around the world for the past 30 years. The space program still installs silicon solar cells in spacecraft because they are reliable and rugged.
New technologies such as thin-film solar cells are still at a very early stage. An accelerated lifetime test shows that the thin film technology does not like the sun, it deteriorates quickly when exposed to the sun.
And, what happens when the sun doesn’t shine?
And even on a cloudy day you will produce some electricity. When the system is designed, the degradation is calculated. These include cloudy days, air pollution, inverter efficiency, bird droppings, dirt and dust, snow and so on. Make sure degradation is factored in when looking at your final potential production figures.
How many households has The Energy Store equipped with solar panels – do you have any anecdotes or success stories?
This is very new since last October. Together with our partners, we have installed over 100 systems to date, but this is just the beginning. We now have over 30 analysts across Ontario and expect to sell 500-1000 systems next year. With 100,000 homes expected to install the system, we expect to expand quite quickly. An anecdote would be that wherever we install a system, we get 5 or 6 homeowners from the same street asking about the system and when they can get it!
Are Ontarians and Torontonians more open to green solutions that might cost a little more in the short term?
We are all part of the planet; we are slowly becoming aware of the need to get rid of fossil fuels and change our society to one that is connected to our biosphere. I believe that everyone is now more aware than ever and open to investing in solutions that will improve our planet.
Where can homeowners go for more information?
You can visit our website where there is a lot of information. You can also google microFIT and check out the OPA website. Wikipedia gives a very interesting history of the FIT program.
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