My alarm clock would buzz at an obnoxiously early hour, and it would seem that the birds and I were the only ones in the whole city waking up. I’d quickly shower, shed the sleep from my body, and my brain would start working properly only when the sound of grinding coffee beans hit my ear drums. I’d have a few quick bites of oatmeal or toast, pour the French press into a mug, and head out the door. I would anticipate packing up the van with tools and materials, tightening up a heavy tool belt, and an aching body by the end of the day.
I was a member of the solar panel installation crew with Guelph Solar. Despite the hardships, this was one of the most satisfying jobs I’ve ever had, filled with rooftop days and smiling faces. I was closer to the sky than I had ever been while getting paid. I had some of the best teachers I could have hoped for, and we believed, through and through, in what we were doing. We were converting our hard work into solar power.
The Law of Conservation of Energy states that “Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.”
That this concept is “Law” means that it is fundamental, and has been, for time immeasurable. Over the course of human history, the sun’s energy has been converted to help feed us, keep us warm, and allow us to thrive. It just took humans a long time to catch up—to learn it, to use it, to put it in writing and to make it Law.
We first figured out how to efficiently capture the sun’s energy during the mid-1800s, and this changed everything. Solar energy facilities were developed during the industrial revolution to heat water, create steam, and drive machinery. Nearly one hundred years later, the first solar cell was developed.
The solar cell is a poetic technology—simple, complex, and profound all at the same time. A solar panel is comprised of many photovoltaic (PV) solar cells. A PV cell is made up of two thin layers of semi-conducting material—usually silicon. Phosphorus is seeded into the top layer, which adds electrons, giving it a negative charge, and boron, which has fewer electrons, doses the bottom layer giving it a positive charge. This creates an electric field where the silicon layers meet. When the sun shines, light particles, or photons, knock electrons free from this silicon junction, which generates a flow of electricity.
One of my most memorable solar panel installations was on the roof of Derek Wong’s home. I met Derek at the Hillside Festival on Guelph Island at the sun-soaked Sun Stage. The solar insolation, which is the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth, is higher in this area than anywhere else on the island, so solar panels were installed to power the stage equipment. Witnessing the power produced at the Sun Stage is as inspiring as the poetry and music that I have experienced there. That summer, I had recently started working with Guelph Solar and Derek was eager to learn more about how he could benefit from a technology that had always fascinated him.
The roof of Derek’s house was made of metal—hot in the beating sun, steep, and slippery under the morning dew. It was an exciting and nerve-wracking roof to work on, with lots of angles, tight corners, and installation measurements so precise that there was no room for error. The lead solar technicians floated from one section to the next, taking measurements and making X’s with construction crayon. I would follow behind, drilling bolts and tightening nuts, navigating myself under the weight of my harness and over the safety ropes. By the end of the first day, all the rails were installed and a few panels were secured, with the rest waiting in the backyard to be hoisted up the two-storey home the next morning. When all was said and done, there would be just under 10 kilo-watts (kW) of installed solar capacity on Derek’s roof.
“The most exciting part was seeing the initial power generation on our SolarEdge app and knowing that we were contributing to green power generation and offsetting fossil fuel use,” Derek says. “The income aspect was nice to have on top of that.”
According to the National Energy Board, solar energy accounts for 0.5 percent of all generated electricity in Canada with a total capacity of 1.5 percent. There is now well over two thousand mega-watts of installed power in Canada, 98 percent of which is in Ontario, making the province the solar capital of the country. Derek and his family are contributors to that number.
Derek is one of the fortunate homeowners who signed up for Ontario’s MicroFIT (Micro Feed-In Tariff) program before it was discontinued. Under the program, homeowners are paid for the power generated from their rooftop solar panels. The electricity is fed directly into the energy grid, and the local utility company sends a cheque for the amount produced every month for a 20-year term. Depending on the rate they’re being paid, MicroFIT contract holders can make anywhere from $1,500 to more than $6,000 per year in revenue.
“Since May 2015, when the system went live, our aggregate income has been about $13.5k in three years, so we’re on track to paying the initial investment off in 7.5 years,” Derek says. He is locked into a contract that pays him 39.6 cents/kWh.
Now that the MicroFIT program has stopped accepting applicants, putting the sun to work is not quite as cost effective for homeowners, but is still a viable and valuable option. There are net metering systems, solar water heating installations, and for the truly committed, off-grid set-ups.
“Everyone wants solar because now it’s the better option. It’s a better price than traditional electricity, it’s clean, it’s technologically advanced, and it gives people independence,” says Anton Lamers, Commercial Projects Manager at Guelph Solar.
But solar is not just for homeowners and small scale projects. Large, international companies, such as Apple, Walmart, and Ikea, are investing in rooftop solar. Anton shares, “Rockefeller started divesting from oil in 2015. More investment has been put into solar and wind than oil, gas, and nuclear since 2016. The world is finally seeing the benefits of clean energy and so we must adapt to solar being the new norm!”
“How’s that for a final spiel?”
I think it’s anything but final for the solar industry.
Last modified: July 9, 2018