Seeing the light

Photo: Zack Metcalfe

In the space of a few years around 2010 something wonderful happened, permanently altering our electrical landscape and bringing a sustainable future within the grasp of even us humble Maritimers.
I’m talking about solar power, the price of which dropped a staggering 400% in those aforementioned years, followed by ongoing improvements in output and quality. The change was so sudden many of us didn’t even notice, myself included, a tectonic shift in the cost of renewables, driven by mass production and technological developments.
These past few weeks I’ve been meeting people in the industry and talking with folks who have adopted solar power. I toured a farm in P.E.I. powering two homes, three barns and a work shed with a personal array of 60 panels, not paying a cent for electricity since 2014. Memory Lane Heritage Village in Lake Charlotte, N.S., just installed a 66-panel array to become the first entirely solar museum in our region, perhaps even our country.
Solar power has always fascinated me. Even since I learned the ins and outs of climate change it seemed like the no-brainer solution to all our environmental woes. From childhood to this very moment I thrill at the sight of a panelled rooftop. The technology and cost has finally caught up to my naive expectations.
In Nova Scotia, someone installing a solar array on their property enters into agreement with Nova Scotia Power. Your array sends its electricity onto the grid while your home draws power from the grid.
If you consume more power than you produce, you pay for the difference. If you produce more power than you consume, the utility pays you, a wonderful state of affairs that could make every building its own miniature power plant, achieving at the residential level what our leadership has failed to do since climate change became a talking point in the 1990s: adequately harness the sun’s power.
Our leadership isn’t totally blind to the progress of solar power. Last year, the Nova Scotia provincial government announced a rebate for anyone interested in establishing their own solar array, offering $1 per watt of installed solar capacity up to $10,000. Those numbers have dropped a little since then (to $0.85 a watt of installed solar capacity up to $8,500) but then the goal is to kickstart the solar industry, not baby it.
Watts Up Solar has been installing photovoltaic (PV) solar panels in Nova Scotia since 2014. I got one of its founders, Tom Rendle, on the phone recently to hear of the boom this rebate inspired. His business undertook something like 100 installations a year prior to the rebate and now does 250. Their multiplying competitors are equally busy.
Solar is a funny thing. We can sing its praises until we’re green in the face, but until it becomes cheaper than the alternatives we aren’t likely to buy in; goodness knows I didn’t.
But here we are, at a time when solar makes financial sense. Besides the rebate, there’s some impressive financing options available in Nova Scotia, such as through Halifax’s Solar City project, allowing your solar array to pay for itself comfortably over years.
Once paid off, the power it produces is strictly profit for the lifespan of the array. The quality panels I’ve inspected are insured for 25 years, and will keep on producing after 40. For this reason, solar is becoming widely recognized as a tool to reduce the cost of living in Nova Scotia and elsewhere.
There is something especially noble about getting by on less, to disassociate one’s self from the more destructive tendencies of our economy. Eating vegan, sourcing bamboo paper towel, growing a garden, or upgrading to energy-efficient appliances all reduces the resources maintaining you as a person, or as a household.
It’s a pleasing idea, that the acreage necessary to keep you alive is smaller than that of your average Canadian. Solar is an extension of that idea, putting the free energy striking your rooftop to constructive use while displacing the mining, burning, and exhausting of coal. What a simple, compelling, revolutionary, idea.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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