Solar power: it’s time!

Published Tuesday, April 28, 2015 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

Enter If you’ve ever ‘missed the boat’ on something, you know that sinking feeling that comes with it: something exciting is happening and you’re not part of it.  

That’s how I’m starting to feel about harnessing energy from that bright, golden ball in the sky that never sends a bill.  There’s a global solar power revolution underway; it’s high time New Brunswick joined it.

Revolution

Revolution – really?  Yes, really.  Consider:

  • Globally, there were 65 times as many solar panels installed in 2013 as there were in 2003 – that’s an increase of 6500%, phenomenal by any measure.
  • In 2013 alone, total global solar power capacity increased by a third.  Running at full capacity, the solar panels installed in 2013 alone would power New Brunswick on a cold January day a dozen times over.  
  • The US is now installing as much solar power every three weeks as it did in all of 2008. 
  • The International Energy Agency now predicts that by 2018, global solar power capacity will be three times what it was in 2012.
  • China is now the global leader in installations, followed by the US, Japan and Europe.
  • The cost of solar panels has fallen dramatically: a panel that cost $1000 in 2008 cost less than $200 in 2013 – a decrease of over 80% in just five years.
  • Solar power is now at ‘grid parity’ (IE it is price competitive with other forms of electricity, including coal-fired) in many countries.  A recent analysis predicted that solar will reach grid parity in virtually every US state by 2016.
  • Walmart, not known for making bad business decisions, has installed solar panels on 200 stores and has already realized energy savings of $2 million. 
  • Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates, recently signed a contract that will see the construction of a solar array that will produce electricity for six cents a kilowatt-hour.

Potential

NB may not have the intense sunlight of Dubai, but we nevertheless do have lots of potential.  According to Natural Resources Canada, most of this country – NB included – receives more solar energy per square meter than Germany, Europe’s solar powerhouse.  

So what’s holding us back?  

First, our power rates are very low.  Sure, everyone likes cheap electricity – and ours is among the cheapest in the world – but low rates tend to stifle investment in solar and other renewables.  It could be argued that nudging rates upward would not only improve NB Power’s lamentable balance sheet, but would help the utility invest in the infrastructure needed to accept and manage an influx of solar energy.

Second, NB lacks incentives to promote investment in solar.  In 2009, Ontario launched a ‘feed-in tariff’ incentive whereby all solar power produced would be purchased by its utility at favourable rates.  The result?  As of 2013, Ontario had 19,200 grid-connected solar power systems, which are now helping that province meet its ambitious greenhouse gas emission reduction targets.  NB, with no such incentive in place, had 32.  (NBers are able to install grid-connected solar systems, but they can only offset their own consumption; your utility won’t pay you a penny if you put more power into their grid than you take out over a year.)  

Ontario’s feed-in tariff also compelled several foreign manufacturers to set up shop there, so its solar industry now employs thousands.  NB’s solar industry, on the other hand, is limited to a few brave and persistent installers.

Still, even for New Brunswickers, the economics of solar energy are constantly improving.  We’ll cover the what and how of owning your own system the next time.