GREEN LIVING: Other countries show more solar initiative

The future for solar power is not bright in Canada , where we continue to rely on fossil fuels.

We’ve had no financial incentives to choose solar energy, which is expensive to install, and lag far behind our international counterparts when it comes to renewable energy sources.  Ontario has just introduced a new solar program, but it doesn’t offer enough financially to encourage the average consumer to harness the sun.

It’s been more than a century since the ability to turn sun into power was discovered. But the rush to develop fossil fuels buried the interest in solar power, which has never gained momentum.  In the last 20 years, as the technology has become more refined and fuel supplies have decreased, the U.S. and many European countries have begun looking at solar as a worthwhile alternative. Amid growing concerns about pollution from fossil fuels, solar is poised for more dramatic growth worldwide.

The best thing about solar is that it peaks during the highest demand time—the hot summer. When air conditioners tax the traditional electrical system, we end up paying a premium of 20 to 30 cents an hour for power that we have to import. With solar, there are no transmission or maintenance costs, it is clean energy and the power grows with the sun. But you have to pay for the energy your home will need up front. At around $30,000 for solar panels to power an average house, it would take 30 years to get your investment back.

This is a price Canadians can’t or won’t pay which is why solar advocates believe the government needs to step in and offer some type of financial incentive for builders which could be passed on to consumers.

The Ontario government does have a new Standard Offer Contracts Program in the works, and has just revised the building code to encourage homeowners to put solar panels on their roofs. Rob McMonagle, executive director of Canadian Solar Industries Association, is happy about this new program but says it is still not as good as financial incentives offered in Europe and the U.S. where solar energy has been a priority for years.

Although details won’t be announced until the fall, McMonagle says that essentially, the Ontario Power Authority will buy excess electricity from homeowners with solar panels for about 42 cents per kilowatt hour. This is almost three times as much as the 13 cents per kilowatt hour it costs the average homeowner for electricity. Solar electricity users will make money by selling excess power which should encourage the sales of panels. Every kilowatt of solar-produced electricity will pay for four hours of electricity purchased from the grid. But McMonagle adds that the 42 cent price is only about half of what is offered in countries like Germany, which installed over 600 mega watts of photovoltaic or solar electric power last year. Canada installed one mega watt.

In the U.S. , Minnesota offers a maximum $20,000 rebate to homeowners who install grid-connected solar electricity. Indiana has had property tax exemptions for solar users since 1975, and California has earmarked $350 million for new residential building construction using solar in 2007.

Ontario’s new building code clarifies solar installation and makes it easier for builders to install solar panels. David Brezer, director, building and development branch, Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, says the new code offers exemptions for combustible solar panels to be installed on buildings that are supposed to have only non-combustible products.

“You can also install solar panels even if they penetrate roofing material, as long as the panels don’t affect the integrity of the roof,” Brezer explains.

While this new building code makes it easier for builders to install solar panels, it still falls short compared to other countries. In Spain , for example, new building codes will go into effect in 2008 making solar water heating mandatory.

And although the Standard Offer Contracts Program will help offset costs, is it enough to change people’s attitudes about solar energy?

Bob Bach, director of Sustainable Buildings Canada, believes the 42 cent a kw hour Standard Offer Contracts Program “totally changes solar photovoltaic power.” He says there is a rapidly growing interest in solar electricity because of this program and “we are going to see significant growth in solar photovoltaic power.”

McMonagle says the Standard Offer Contracts program will see a growth in solar installations but thinks more help is needed. CanSIA estimates this program will see the installation of up to 15,000 systems by Ontario homeowners over the next five years. This would be equivalent to about 40 MW. McMonagle says that better financing mechanisms, allowing homeowners to amortize the extra costs of solar, are also required.

Victor Fiume, president of the Ontario Home Builder’s Association, agrees.

“I don’t think we’re quite there yet as a society, for an item like solar that makes people feel good but never pays back financially,” he says. “Most customers today will not buy a home based solely on energy efficiency.”

What Fiume would like to see is help from banks and lenders for people looking to buy energy efficient homes.  He points out that if you save $100 a month on utilities, this should be taken into account within your mortgage.

Fiume , McMonagle and Bach would love to see solar become standard on new homes. But given the new solar electric program and the revised building code, which are good but not enough, chances are solar-powered homes, like the energy efficient R-2000 home which was introduced 20 years ago, may continue to be an unattainable novelty for the average homeowner for years to come.

About Shelly Sanders

Shelly (represented by Amy Tipton, Signature Literary Agency) is the author of THE RACHEL TRILOGY--Rachel's Secret, Rachel's Promise & Rachel's Hope (Second Story Press).Rachel's Secret received a Starred Review in Booklist and was named a Notable Read from the Association of Jewish Libraries. Rachel's Hope was shortlisted for the Vine Awards for Canadian Literature in 2016. Before turning to fiction, Shelly was a freelance journalist for the Toronto Star, National Post, Maclean's, and Canadian Living.
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