Solar panel super power: Yukon leads with high per capita installations

Yukon now has more solar panel units in operation per capita than any other jurisdiction in Western Canada, according to Shane Andre, the director of the territorial government’s energy branch.

In the two years since the government allowed residential and business solar panel users to sell surplus power to Yukon Energy, Andre said almost 110 units have been installed.

He said those units are generating close to the same amount of electricity as both wind turbines in Whitehorse were, when they were operating. The turbines were producing enough to power about 150 homes.

Andre said if the current trend continues, Yukon could surpass Ontario as the country’s biggest solar power user per capita.

‘Your meter is going backwards’

Kelly Murray had solar panels installed on the roof of his house in Whitehorse in mid-August.

Electric Meter
Yukon Energy sells electricity for 13 cents per kilowatt hour, but buys it from solar power users on the hydro grid for 21 cents per kilowatt hour or 30 cents for solar power generators in communities with diesel power generation. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

“They got it all connected just a week ago and I was working in the garage and let them do their stuff,” said Murray.

“I come out of the garage and one of the young fellas there says, ‘your meter is going backwards.'”

“So I had to look at this thing, and lo and behold, there’s the arrow indicating which way the meter is supposed to go; it’s just merrily going backwards,” said Murray.

Murray said he still needs to get an inspection before selling power to the grid. He said the utility charges 13 cents per kilowatt hour, but buys it for 21 cents per kilowatt hour.

In communities that rely on diesel generated power, Andre said the payout is even higher: the utility company buys solar power for 30 cents per kilowatt hour.

Murray said during daylight hours he’s producing surplus power. There are no batteries with his system so when daylight ends, so does the solar power.

Shane Andre
Shane Andre, the director of the Yukon government’s energy branch, with solar panels on the roof of the Yukon legislature building. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

Murray said his installer told him it should pay for itself in about eight years. He said he’s happy to do what he can to reduce the territory’s use of fossil fuels.

Murray noted his neighbourhood, Riverdale, sits on top of the aquifers that provide Whitehorse with its drinking water.

Concerns have been raised about leaking heating oil tanks contaminating the water.

The average cost of a solar power installation at a Whitehorse home is around $20,000, according to one of the city’s installers. Murray said he’s eligible for a $5,000 rebate incentive from the government.

Solar panels ‘eliminate’ electricity bills at Dawson Creek office

Solar panels ‘eliminate’ electricity bills at Dawson Creek office

‘By June, I was producing 10 times as much electricity as I was using’

Posted by Rob Klovance


It appears there are significant side effects to getting close to solar power. It’s a condition we’ll call photovoltaic-itis, and it manifests itself in shrinking electricity bills and the onset of giddiness.

“I think renewable energy is fun, fascinating, and amazing,” gushes Don Pettit, who installed photovoltaic panels at his home just outside of Dawson Creek more than 30 years ago and hasn’t been quite the same since. “I can’t understand why anybody with even the slightest bit of enthusiasm for the future isn’t quite interested in it. It’s totally cool.”

Just over a year ago, sun worshipper Pettit went a step further with the installation of photovoltaic panels on the roof of his three-storey office building in Dawson Creek and connected these to the BC Hydro grid. He works there as a writer-photographer and is landlord to three other tenants, including the Peace Energy Cooperative, which has begun selling and installing the panels.

“They wanted a demonstration project, so they were pleased,” recalls Pettit, a founding member of the cooperative. “They got a sale out of it, plus they now have a solar-powered office that looks really sharp.”

Long summer days in B.C.’s northeast pay off in surplus power

A demonstration project is only as good as its performance. No sooner had the panels been installed when winter arrived, and snow sometimes covered the roof and all but eliminated power production.

But with a 45-degree roof angle, snow would slide off the panels whenever temperatures rose. And by March, Pettit discovered just what the solar panels were capable of.

“Right away we were producing five times as much power as we were using, even with the furnace running quite a bit,” he recalls. “And by June, I was producing 10 times more power than I was using.

“In summer, the sun’s up all day. It’s up at 5 in the morning, and sets at 11. And boy did the panels ever produce – it was just unbelievable.”

A few weeks ago, Pettit did some number crunching and determined that, even with little power production in the winter, he had generated enough power over the course of a year to easily cover his electricity needs and give him a credit of 2,173 kilowatt hours. He has been able to sell his excess power back to the BC Hydro grid at 10 cents per kilowatt-hour.

“BC Hydro has made it easy to grid-tie,” says Pettit, referring to BC Hydro’s net metering program that sets up a two-way exchange of power with certain customers. “It’s absolutely a piece of cake now.”

Plummeting cost of PV panels makes it easier

Pettit says that when he “solarized” his home back in the 1980s, the cost of a 50-watt PV panel was about $800. A similar panel today costs him about $75.

At that price, Pettit set out to cover as much of his roof in PV panels as possible. And to hedge his bets in his quest to be “net zero in terms of electricity”, he quickly tried to identify if he might be able to curb any electricity waste.

“As soon as I solarized the building, I became very aware of how much power I was using,” he says. “Really, I just took a walk around the building and looked at every point of usage, and boy it didn’t’ take long to find out I was wasting an awful lot of power.”

One of the big culprits was an outdoor light he had inherited when he bought the building 12 years earlier. The solar sensor designed to turn the light off in daylight wasn’t working properly, and he discovered that ambient light from the city was more than enough for him to safely get to his car in the dark. So he switched it off for good.

Combined with the replacement of dozens of inefficient incandescent lights with CFLs and LEDs, and efforts by tenants to turn office equipment off after hours, Pettit estimates that the building’s electricity use has been reduced by at least a third.

The electric fan in the building’s aging gas furnace still drives electricity use up in winter, and Pettit is planning to replace the unit with something more efficient.

Panels expected to last well beyond 25-year warranty period

Pettit has also discovered firsthand that properly maintained PV panels can last a lot longer than most people expect.

“I’ve had lots of people question me on that, but I’ve got the proof sitting on my roof five miles out of town,” he says. “There they are. You look at them and they look as good as the day I bought them, and their output is superb.”

Pettit expects at least another 20 years out of the PV panels at his home, and sees no reason why the new panels at his office won’t also last well beyond the 25-year product warranty.

Not surprisingly, interest in solar power conversions in Dawson Creek is growing fast. The Peace Energy Co-operative installed 31 kilowatts of panels last year, and so far this year has orders for 12 more homes and small businesses, plus two far larger facilities.

“Even if you have to amortize it over the 25 years, the investment now is so minimal,” says Pettit. “This whole system on my roof cost $17,000. Some people spend that much on a paved friggin’ driveway, or granite countertops in their kitchen with a few new cupboards.

“But this asset pays for itself – it’s eliminating my electrical bills.”

Rob Klovance is managing editor of

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Dispelling 7 Solar Energy Myths

Dispelling 7 Solar Energy Myths

In Greek mythology, Icarus, while escaping Crete wearing homemade wings, ignores the advice of his father and, in an act of hubris, flies too close the sun. The wax holding his feathery wings together melts and he falls to his death.

As it turns out, it’s important to respect one’s father and the sun! We recognize this famous Greek story because it is a valuable myth, one with a worthwhile lesson. The myths we are concerned about, the ones of dubious value, are crazy stories that are passed off as facts when talking about solar energy.

Climate — Solar and the long, cold Canadian winter

Let’s start with one of my favourite myths: “We are simply too far north here to capture much of the sun’s energy.”

To get to the bottom of these solar myths we talked to Gordon Howell, a solar expert with Howell-Mayhew Engineering.

Too far north? “No, it’s not true that Canada is too far north for solar energy. We have about 50 per cent more [solar] energy than Germany, for example, which has a huge number of solar installations,” says Howell.

Batteries not included. As Howell explains, solar tends to produce more electricity than a facility needs in the summer, but that energy isn’t wasted. Solar is always connected to either the grid or a battery system. And grids can accommodate a significant amount of solar energy — as they do with wind — since grids already have to have enough duplication of base load capacity to cover the shutdown of a large coal, gas or nuclear power plant.

Isn’t snow a solar killer? Howell helped design the Edmonton Solar PV Reference Array at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, which collects data about solar. “[Based] on the first winter’s worth of data, we found out that the snow only reduced the annual energy generation by five per cent.” The system has six pairs of solar modules mounted at different angles, with half of them shielded against snowfall. Howell says depending on the system you could lose five to 15 per cent of production from snow cover.

Solar doesn’t work in the cold. We love this one, because it turns out solar modules actually work better in the cold. “At minus 45, for example, a solar PV system would be working 29 per cent better than its rating. And when it’s plus 70, because the solar modules get really hot in the summer, it’s working 17 per cent less. That cold actually helps to mitigate, to a small degree, the fact that we generate less in the wintertime.”

Indeed, it is theoretically possible to provide all of the electricity required by humanity by covering only one per cent of the Sahara Desert with solar modules. And that isn’t a dream project either.

The red herring of efficiency

Solar is only 15 per cent efficient. You may have heard how solar modules are only capable of converting 15 to 20 per cent of the sun’s energy into electricity, which suggests the technology is terribly inefficient.  Howell calls this a red herring since the supply of solar energy is virtually unlimited.

Besides, as Howell notes, “the oldest coal-fired generators in Alberta are running around 23 per cent efficient. The new methane-fired ones are around 50 per cent, wind generators are around 45 per cent, and diesel generators range between 15 and 33 per cent [efficient].”

“We don’t care if we waste the solar resource,” says Howell, but we should care if we waste coal or natural gas.

In the end it’s the cost and benefits that will determine solar’s value, not how many modules it takes to produce electricity. The efficiency of solar modules has improved from about 10 per cent when Howell installed his own system 30 years ago to 16 per cent today. This means it now requires less roof space to generate the electricity you need for your home.

Embodied energy? You may have heard that it takes more energy to make a solar module than it will produce over its lifetime. If this was true of course no one would invest in solar. Estimates vary, but the ballpark estimate is that it takes 2.5 years to produce as much energy as it takes to build and install a solar PV system. For comparison wind has a so-called energy payback of just over a year, while coal-fired power plants are about 3.67 years. The bottom line: it takes energy to make any power plant, but renewable energy stacks up pretty well. Not to mention you don’t have to dig around in the dirt to find fuel for them. It just falls from the sky!

The surprising price of solar

Solar is ridiculously expensive. The price of solar modules has come down more than 95 per cent since 1977. Howell installed one of the first solar systems in Alberta on his home. “My system cost $40,000 to install in 1995,” says Howell. “Today, we could do that same system for $9,000.”

That means Howell paid $17/watt for the installed price on his 2.3 kilowatt solar system in 1995. Today you can install a 10 kilowatt system for $3.50/watt or less and a large 2,000 kilowatt system for about $2.8/watt, or less!At these prices solar really starts to make sense. Howell predicts solar will grow from eight to 2,000 megawatts in Alberta by 2024.

So let’s keep all this in mind lest our own hubris causes us to miss out on the coming solar wave.


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