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Paul Ford, who agreed to have solar panel put on the roof of his house, poses for a photo at his home in Mississsauga, Ontario, Canada. (Deborah Baic/Globe & Mail)
Paul Ford, who agreed to have solar panel put on the roof of his house, poses for a photo at his home in Mississsauga, Ontario, Canada. (Deborah Baic/Globe & Mail)

Energy

Is this solar-power program a money-saver? Add to ...

When Mississauga resident Paul Ford opened the door to a salesman in the spring of 2010, he had never considered putting solar panels on his roof. He was surprised when the pitchman told him that not only would the panels not cost him a dime, but the roof would make him money.

“I said, ‘You’re kidding,’ and the conversation just went from there,” Mr. Ford says.

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The pitch went like this: Pure Energies Inc. of Markham, Ont., would finance, install and maintain an array of solar photovoltaic panels on the roof of Mr. Ford’s 3,200-square-foot home. The energy produced by those solar panels would flow into Mississauga’s main power grid from his home, with a meter monitoring the energy produced.

In return for that “clean” electricity, the Ministry of Energy, through the Ontario Power Authority, would pay Pure Energies 80.2 cents per kilowatt-hour (as part of the province’s Feed-In-Tariff program, implemented in 2009 to help phase out coal-fired electricity), with Mr. Ford sharing in the revenue. That rate would be guaranteed for 20 years.

Mr. Ford went for it, and his nine-kilowatt rooftop array has been producing solar energy for his community for almost a year. He will be getting a cheque for around $1,000 from Pure Energies on the one-year anniversary of the installation.

Since its inception 2½ years ago, Ontario’s microFIT program (for arrays producing up to 10 kilowatts of energy) has attracted applications from more than 40,000 home and business owners. According to the Energy Ministry, as of Sept. 30, 2011, more than 8,400 microFIT projects are online and 3,000 others are ready to connect to the electricity grid.

Of course, as with all new technologies, the introduction of solar has not run entirely smoothly. Many taxpayers are annoyed that the provincial government has provided significant subsidies for solar installations (for which they are being taxed) and bureaucratic issues in connecting them to the power grid have stalled growth.

Furthermore, while thousands may have applied, others who might have been interested have adopted a wait-and-see attitude: Will the technology be outdated by the time the contract is up? How will a solar lease affect the resale of a property?

But even those who are keen to get in on the action will have to wait. The microFIT program (as well as the FIT program, for solar installations above 10 kW) is currently going through a review by the ministry. As part of the review, Energy Minister Chris Bentley is consulting members of the solar industry until Dec. 14.

After the consultation process, a report will be presented to Mr. Bentley in the new year. And while the ministry says new microFIT applications are welcome in the interim, they will not be processed until the new rules are established.

Many in the industry expect the review could mean a lower rate offered under the microFIT program. But would a lower rate also mean a lower rate of return (and smaller cheques for homeowners)?

Not necessarily, says Jon Kieran, chair of the Canadian Solar Industries Association (he says 300 to 400 companies with CanSIA membership offer residential solar in the province). Because the cost of materials has also been dropping, companies may be able to pass along those savings to the consumer.

“Although prices may and will fall, costs have fallen,” he says. “So for a homeowner, I hope they don’t see that lower price in the context of any estimate they may have heard a year ago, or two years ago or even six months ago, because people in the industry are trying to offer these services at a lower price.”

Jacob Travis, president of the Solar Alliance of Ontario, says rates can come down if the government works on fixing inefficiencies in the program, which would mean that labour costs would come down as well. (The popularity of the Ontario microFIT program has resulted in delays throughout the application and implementation process.)

“A lot of the costs are in paying for labour to wait around and it frustrates the industry, it frustrates the consumers,” he says. “The prices can come down dramatically if the government will make it so that there are not long delays.”

In order for the microFIT program to work for homeowners on a large scale, putting solar panels on your roof and getting hooked up should be “plug and play,” as easy as “putting in an air conditioner,” Mr. Travis says.

He says he is hoping that the government will announce an interim rate “that is substantially lower so people can keep selling and keep buying.”

Chris Stern, vice-president of business development of Pure Energies, says the company has been giving homeowners payments of $200 to $1,200 annually (on the one-year anniversary of hook-up), with the average being in the $300-to-$450 range. Though the yearly revenue is a nice bonus, he says, most of their customers are more interested in the idea of creating green energy.

He says his company offers homeowners the option to earn the entire feed-in tariff if they are willing to finance the system themselves. “But then they have to fork over $25,000 to $30,000, and they’ve got to insure it, make sure it runs properly, clean it,” he says. “Roughly 2 per cent of our customers purchase. Most people want to give us a spot on their roof.”

They aren’t “doing this to make $300 or $400 a year, they’re doing it because Mrs. Jones down the street has got one and her kids love it and it’s fantastic,” Mr. Stern says.



Is a solar-power system right for you?

The first step involves a detailed roof analysis, said Chris Stern, vice-president of business development for Pure Energies Inc. The most common obstacle to solar comes from foliage. “Shade is really bad for a solar-power system,” Mr. Stern says. “There’s a running joke in our company to send a chainsaw with every installation.”

Other challenges include inadequate roof space facing south, southwest or southeast, Mr. Stern says, or architectural details that would prevent an installation. “On the south side of your house, it could be that you have three gables,” he says.

What works? Ideally, 300 to 1,200 square feet of unobstructed roof space allowing for at least a three-kilowatt system. “Bungalows are fantastic with the back facing south,” Mr. Stern says.

Roofs should be less than five years old to prevent any need for repairs once the panels go up. (Pure Energies allows for one free removal of the panels as part of its 20-year solar contract.)

Do panels create wear and tear on your roof? “The biggest enemy to shingles is sunlight, so we’re blocking it by putting the panels up,” Mr. Stern says.



How solar breaks down across Canada

“There are limited solar incentives in selected other provinces and the occasional municipality, but nothing remotely close to the size and scope of Ontario’s FIT [Feed-In Tariff]and microFIT programs,” said Jon Kieran, chair of the Canadian Solar Industries Association. Outside Ontario, homeowners may lay out $20,000 or $30,000 for a full solar array.

Kevin Pegg, who owns B.C.-based Energy Alternatives, says 95 per cent of his solar market is people who live in remote areas without access to power. “The on-grid market in British Columbia is a very, very tiny market,” he said. “The people that we do the grid-tie systems on tend to be what I call very ‘deep green’ people,” he said.

Brooke Longpre, vice-president of Sound Solar in Saskatchewan, says an average, 3.5-kilowatt residential solar array would cost a homeowner around $20,000. However, the province currently offers a 35-per-cent rebate on solar photovoltaic installations under the “net metering” program. The program was extended past its original 2010 end date because of its popularity.

Ms. Longpre says the rebate has increased interest in residential solar, but she hopes that Saskatchewan will see a FIT program soon. “We are a PV hot spot. We have the most sunlight hours in North America and we have vast agricultural land.”

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