By Ron Young —
In 1789 Benjamin Franklin coined the phrase “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Ben, a true renaissance man, is considered by some the father of electricity. In Franklin’s experiments he tapped electricity at the end of a kite string during an electrical storm and was able to demonstrate that it had certain properties that no one had previously understood. Since then electricity generation has become one of the most important commodities of the civilized world. But if Ben were alive today maybe he would have said: nothing can be certain but death, taxes, and the steady increase in your electric utility bill.
Back in Ben Franklin’s day electricity was referred to as electrical fluid and that description is still appropriate when you think of how electricity infiltrates and nurtures every aspect of our lives just as blood courses through our arteries, veins, and capillaries. Electrons in the streams of electrical fluid light up our computer screens and deliver the packages of information we send to each other in the form of emails and texts and photos. Even this article was sent on an incredible journey along a river of electrical fluid that travelled invisibly through the air and was transmitted by a satellite dish to a contrivance miles above Earth and back to a receiving dish into the electronic arteries of the Internet. It arrived at the publisher’s computer where it was arranged on her computer in an electrical state known as a page layout and then sent on to a printing press where every process from press negative to press motor was activated by electrical fluid resulting in these words etched on a page.
Really is it any wonder that the electric utility company can hold us hostage to price increases? How would we ever do without electrical fluid? BC Hydro rates are projected to rise 28 per cent over the next five years, but that isn’t the whole story. I haven’t seen it announced or discussed but I don’t doubt that BC Hydro will implement “time of use” charges not long after the smart meters are completely activated province wide. Time of use charges, such as they now have in Ontario, will charge different rates based on three separate time periods called off-peak, mid-peak and on-peak. So if you use electricity during the on-peak period, typically from mid-day to mid-evening, you will pay more. This can result in a much higher than a 28 per cent increase in your bill over the next five years if you use most of your power during on-peak periods.
There are many small measures you can take that can add up to a large reduction in your utility bill over time but in this article I want to talk about the large thing you can do that will make a permanent and significant reduction in your utility bill. If you have reasonable south-facing exposure to the sun and roof space or ground space at your home you can install a grid-tied solar system that uses what is called net-metering to reduce or eliminate your bill. Not too many years ago this used to be a very challenging task involving special meters and elaborate applications but that’s all changed. BC Hydro has streamlined their application process and stepped out of the way of homeowners wanting to generate their own power.
Net-metering lends itself to a distributed power model where electricity, instead of being generated at one central location, can be generated at many smaller points and distributed much more efficiently. This is being done on a large scale in places like Germany, Japan, California, and now Ontario.
When you have a net-metering system all the power produced by your solar panels when the sun shines is sent back to the hydro grid. The new smart meters that have been installed in most locations in BC can understand when power is being sent backwards and essentially stop or reverse the operation of the meter when there is a surplus. In simple terms if you make ten dollars worth of electricity and use only nine dollars then you are credited for one dollar.
A net-metering system can consist of a single solar panel and a device called an inverter that turns the electrical current of the solar panel into suitable current for the grid.
To understand how many solar panels would be appropriate for your needs you have to understand how much electricity you use at present. Look at your BC Hydro bill; it neatly summarizes the average kilowatt-hours or kWh used each day during the period of the bill. With this information and a little math it’s easy to determine how many solar panels it will take to offset or eliminate your electricity cost. Making this an even more attractive option is the fact that solar panels have come way down in price in the last three years to at least half of their previous cost.
One consideration worth mentioning is that a grid-tied solar system usually does not have any way to store energy as all that it generates is fed directly into the grid. In the event of a power failure from BC Hydro the grid-tied system will also shut down for safety reasons. There are many reasons why this is done but in just one example: you don’t want to be sending power down the hydro lines from your system when a lineman is trying to fix a problem with downed lines.
You may find it a little disappointing if you have a bunch of solar panels capable of generating electricity and you don’t have any power in your home during a power outage. This can be remedied with the addition of a back up storage battery and the size of the battery will be determined by you deciding how much stored power you think you need. In other words, do you want to have power for extended periods to power all your household loads or just for critical loads for a few hours.
earthRightSolar recently installed a 10 kW grid-tied net-metering system at the Yunesit’in Community school (Stone Reserve) near Hanceville. That system has generated an impressive 3.18 MWh. That’s over three million watt hours since it was activated in late November. That’s especially notable considering we have just passed through three months of the darkest days of the year. In layman’s terms that electricity could power about 105 average houses for one day and it has saved roughly 56 trees in carbon offsets in just over three months!
Ron Young is a renewable energy professional that designs and sells and installs solar, wind, and micro-hydro systems. He operates the earthRight store in Williams Lake, BC and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright Ron Young 2014