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Home solar power catching on

Solar technology converts sunlight into electricity. (iStockPhoto)
Solar technology converts sunlight into electricity. (iStockPhoto)

Jill Colton, staff writer

August 17, 2011 — Residential solar panels, a source of clean, renewable energy, are becoming more popular with homeowners.

The federal government offers incentive programs for solar technology. (iStockPhoto)
The federal government offers incentive programs for solar technology. (iStockPhoto)

Solar photovoltaic technology, or Solar PV, converts sunlight directly into electricity.

Initially, solar cells were used to power space satellites and smaller items like calculators and watches. Now, people all over the globe are powering their homes and businesses with individual PV systems.

Furthermore, there are government incentives in place for those who generate their own power.

How does it work?

“Solar systems are simple,” says Manish Nayar, Managing Partner of OYA Solar Inc.

“You put solar panels made of silicon cells on the roof. As the sunlight hits them, the intensity of the sunlight and the temperature allows a certain amount of electricity to be created,” he explains.

Typically, the most electricity is created in the summer, during the day when the temperature is the warmest and the sun is the strongest.

Although more raw solar energy is produced due to the sun's intensity in the summer, winter also offers opportunities for solar power generation.

“The panels are more effective and more efficient at converting the power into electricity when the temperature is really cool. So you're still producing 35-40 per cent of your electricity in the winter months,” Nayar says.

For maximum power generation, panels must be pointed south, and are most efficient when tilted between 0 and 45 degrees.

Cost and government rebates

Solar energy certainly doesn't come cheap. Nayar says the average system is usually three kilowatts in size and costs just under $20,000 to install.

“It's an up front cost so without financing solutions, people are often scared off.”

Many people offset the cost by using both solar power and metered electricity, receiving credit for any power they contribute back to the grid -- a policy called net metering.

“By doing this, you don't have to spend the money on the expensive batteries or the other equipment it would take to power the house at night,” Nayar explains.

Government incentives also give the average person a decent return on their investment.

The Government of Canada recently announced an extension of the popular ecoENERGY Home Retrofit program. Under the initiative, homeowners are granted up to $5,000 to help make their homes more energy-efficient and reduce the burden of high energy costs. The program has been renewed until March 31, 2012.

Provinces across the country also offer initiatives. Ontario's renewable energy program is called microFIT. Essentially, it's a 20 year contract with the government that allows you to sell power back to them at a set rate.

Even in the winter, electricity is generated.
Even in the winter, electricity is generated.

“Currently they're paying homeowners 80 cents per kilowatt hour to sell power back to the grid. So the homeowner is still responsible for all the upfront costs. But the difference with solar is instead of paying 11 cents to your utitlity company, the company is now paying you 80 cents to generate electricity,” Nayar says.

“Solar power allows citizens to become private businesses in the electricity business.”

The most expensive portion of energy for any utility company is peak demand. This is always produced in the summer, during the middle of the day. But if many homes are simultaneously producing energy, utilities can reduce the cost of the power.

So why isn't everyone equipping their roofs with solar panel technology?

“Most people are uneducated about the incentives and what the payback is for them,” Nayar says. “People are used to buying electricity from a utility company, they don't understand what the benefits are to producing their own electricity.”

Environmental benefits

In addition to helping homeowners' wallets, solar energy also helps the environment. It reduces home energy consumption and emits no greenhouse gases.

Nayar says the electricity generated from solar has about one tenth of the environmental impact of a generation mix that includes nuclear, coal, hydro and wind.

“It's a much cleaner and more effective form of energy -- there are also zero noise emissions from solar systems.”

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