Some of Martin Engler’s acquaintances like to give him a hard time about his interest in solar energy. You’ll get that when you work in the oilpatch.
“Yeah, they say things like: ‘When are you going to grow a ponytail?’” Engler says.
Engler has been doing solar installations since the late 1990s, off and on. Probably more off than on. Most of it has been industrial stuff (yes, the oilpatch often uses solar at remote locations), but he’d like to do more residential and commercial.
Recently Engler got a contract to install photovoltaic panels on the south-facing roof of a house a couple hundred metres from where he lives, and he’s pretty pumped about it. He’s hoping it will be the first of many such jobs in the area.
Engler’s company is Called North Shore Renewables. This spring he’ll get started on Dan Tarney and Caroline Wagenaar’s house in Marten Beach just north of Slave Lake, Alberta. They built it several years ago with solar energy in mind, and had the roof pitched accordingly. Adding solar then wasn’t affordable. Now it is.
For one thing, the technology has improved, making solar panels more efficient, and cheaper.
“In the 1990s, we used to pay $1,000 for a 100-watt panel,” Engler says. “Now it’s $200 for a 405-watt panel.”
But what’s making the investment even more attractive right now is a new federal government incentive program, called the Canada Greener Homes Grant. There are two parts – a $5,000 grant and a $10,000, interest-free loan.
The two main ways to set up a solar power system are to be independent of the power grid, or tied into it. If you want to be independent, battery storage for surplus power is the way to go. Engler says the batteries are quite expensive, and you can expect to have to replace them in seven to 10 years.
Being connected to the grid allows the owner to sell excess power the sunnier months, and then buy it back as needed when the panels aren’t producing as much. In this case, Tarney and Wagenaar have joined what they call a ‘solar club.’ It’s an association of small solar power producers that provides cost-savings via two pricing options.
“By switching between the two rates seasonally,” Wagenaar explains, “homeowners can sell excess power produced in spring and summer at a higher rate per KWh (currently 30 cents per KWh), thus building up a credit. In fall and winter (when the solar system doesn’t produce much energy), homeowners can buy electricity from the grid at a lower rate (currently 12.5 cents per KWh) and use the credit built up in summer.”
Wagenaar says they expect to save enough in power costs to cover the loan repayments, meaning the installation will pay for itself in 10 years, “possibly less.”
The couple have a lot of hoops to jump through on the grant/loan program, as well as whatever it takes to become a ‘micro-generator’ with ATCO Electric, and to get the relevant electrical permits. If all that goes as planned, they hope installation can begin next month.
“We’d like to get the system up and running in time to take advantage of the long, sunny days of spring and summer,” Wagenaar says.
Speaking of which, Engler says he likes the installation work, but at 68 years old, he admits his best years of clambering around on steeply-pitched roofs are behind him. He’ll hire people if he has to, he says, but the business model he has in mind is something more in the cooperative line.
How he sees it working is if somebody else in the neighbourhood is interested in a solar installation, they could help out on one job, thereby earning some credit on their own project, as well as learning something about how it works.
“That’s the model I would like to see,” Engler says. “But who knows how it might evolve.”
Engler isn’t the only one focusing on solar installations in the area. Another company looking to get involved is Eagletech Electric in Slave Lake. Darryl Garon of Eagletech says the company has people trained and are “looking to get into it.”
by Joe McWilliams
April 13, 2023