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Bringing the Solar Revolution to BC

June 1, 2016

Here are a few mind-boggling facts about energy from the sun. Enough solar energy reaches the Earth in one hour to meet all of humanity’s energy needs for an entire year. Solar is the fastest growing source of newly installed electricity generating capacity in the world. The global amount of installed solar panels doubles every two and a half years. Global solar capacity has grown from one gigawatt (one billion watts) at the dawn of the twenty-first century, to almost 250 gigawatts in 2016. Within two or at most three decades, solar will be the number one source of electricity in the world.


Why have we finally entered the solar era? The biggest reason is economics. The price of solar electricity has fallen by 99 percent since the 1970s. Like the speed and memory of computers, the efficiency of solar technology continues to improve as prices fall. In sunny American states and many countries in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, the Caribbean, south Asia, and the south Pacific, solar is now competitive with coal and natural gas. And of course solar is one of the clean renewable energy sources that we must rapidly deploy to replace fossil fuels and avert the potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change.


BC also has a competitive advantage that we have not yet recognized. Our vast network of hydroelectric dams is an ideal complement to intermittent sources of energy like solar and wind. System planners can optimize the electrical grid so that water is stored in the hydroelectric system at times when it is sunny or windy. In other words, our reservoirs act like giant batteries, recharging when the sun shines and discharging when it is dark.


And yet solar has been slow to make inroads in BC, for three main reasons. The first explanation is that BC enjoys very low prices for electricity. Prices here are roughly half the price paid in many other nations, making it harder for solar to compete. The second reason, related to low electricity prices, is that we have built, and continue to build very energy inefficient buildings. Compared to new construction in Europe and California, new buildings in Canada use 80-90 percent more energy for heating and cooling. This high energy demand is difficult for solar to meet. The third reason is the lack of supportive public policies. Unlike the US, Germany, and Japan, Canada does not offer tax credits or subsidies for the installation of solar panels. Ontario’s Green Energy Act ushered in a policy of paying elevated prices to producers of solar electricity and sparked a boom in that province.


Despite these obstacles, interest in solar is high and rising in BC. We can push our political leaders to address the glaring deficiencies in our building code and our public policies. And we can demonstrate local leadership by rolling up our sleeves and taking action.


Across the Gulf Islands, solar photovoltaic systems are popping up. On Gabriola, Galiano, Mayne, Saltspring, and Pender. Solar panels mounted on roofs or on the ground, on schools, a recycling depot, a community hall, and private buildings. These projects create work for local roofers and electricians, as well as upstream jobs manufacturing solar panels, aluminum racking, and all kinds of electrical equipment.


Plans are underway for community solar farms, where individuals and businesses work together to form co-operatives and find suitable chunks of land to host a large number of solar panels. Individuals, families, and businesses would purchase one or more panels, creating opportunities for those without suitable roofs or enough money to purchase an entire system.


If you heat your home with a woodstove and are reasonably conscientious about electricity use, then a modest solar photovoltaic system could completely eliminate your electricity bills for the next 30-40 years. For example, if your average monthly BC Hydro bill is $50, then a solar PV system that would generate as much electricity as you use annually would cost roughly $12,500. If Canada offered solar tax credits on par with the US, the cost of such a system would fall to less than $9,000.


Imagine a future British Columbia where public policies and tax dollars supported solar, wind, and energy efficiency instead of liquified natural gas and the Site C dam. Billions of dollars spent on renewables and conservation would create more jobs, reduce climate pollution, and make the people of this beautiful province proud to be genuine environmental leaders.


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