The farm of Darlene Sanford in western PEI has converted sunlight into steak for as long as it’s been in the family, harnessing this renewable resource to grow all of their own grass and most of their own grain, feeding beef cattle which in turn feed the world. But since September of 2014, they’ve been converting sunlight into something a little more versatile – electricity.
It all started when her insurance company called with some disappointing news – the oil tank which heated their home would no longer be insured. Instead of investing in a newer, insurable tank, Darlene and her husband Mitchell explored their options, deciding finally on a ground-mounted, sixty panel solar array in their front yard, rated at 13.2KW hours. Since then, it’s faithfully powered everything behind their mailbox, including two houses, three barns, a shop and grain tanks.
“I just wish we’d done it sooner,” said Darlene.
When the sun is shining, these panels directly meet all of this farm’s needs, be it heat, power tools in their shed, pumping water to the cattle, everything. Whatever they don’t use it fed onto the grid, earning them credits. When the sun goes down, they begin drawing power from the grid, using up their credits. This back and forth exchange between the Sanford farm and their utility, Maritime Electric, is tracked by two energy meters on the property, one recording the outflow of power, one the inflow.
Through the spring, summer and fall, the Sanfords feed more power into the grid than they use, building up credits with Maritime Electric. Through winter, however, when the days are shorter and their production of electricity goes down, they begin spending these banked credits. Consistently, year after year, the farm has broken even, paying nothing for electricity, only the service fees connecting them to the grid. One month, when a carbon tax credit worked in their favour, the Sanfords paid a mere $3.57 to their utility. Darlene insists that one day, this bill will be framed and hung on the wall next to their solar power inverters. Maritime Electric discourages solar arrays which will produce more power than its owner will ultimately consume, and will take away credits not used within a year.
The ten year loan necessary to build this solar array was not a small one, but the payments they make on this loan are not much more than they were paying on their monthly electricity bill. The difference is that, when their ten year loan is up, their farm will enjoy free electricity for the lifetime of the array, insured for 25 years with a lifespan over 40.
“Nobody should be ignoring solar, not just farmers,” said Mitchell. “It’s a renewable resource. In ten years it’ll be free. And if Maritime Electric ever starts paying us for the power we make, we’ll put another thirty panels out there.”
The Sanford farm makes use of around 1,000 acres of farmland and raises an average of 400 cattle. As of press time their farm had pumped 61,784 KWs of excess electricity into the grid, while only drawing 57,491. Darlene took this farm over from her father about ten years ago, and has taken pains to better its productivity, from their treatment of the soil, to their expenditure of fuel, to the adoption of computers.
“If you’re not making it better with everything you do, you ain’t doing it right,” said Darlene, and their installation of solar is just an extension of that philosophy.
In 2005, Summerside resident Steve Howard established Renewable Lifestyles with the intent of championing renewable forms of energy across Prince Edward Island. It has since evolved to specialize in solar photovoltaic (PV), and in 2014, installed the sixty panel array on the aforementioned Sanford farm.
“When we first started,” said Steve, “solar electric panels were very expensive per watt and were sold mostly by oil companies like BP and Shell. Those were the people with these tiny niche markets which they didn’t put much effort into.”
With mass production, however, and the founding of specialized solar companies in Canada and elsewhere, prices began to plummet while wattage per panel began to climb. The most significant changes were observed around 2010.
“We saw a plummet in the price of PV solar,” said Steve. “It went down like 400 per cent. It went from something with a forty year payback to something with a ten year payback.”
While prices continue to drop and efficiencies continue to climb (going from 225 watts a panel years back to 310 watts, in the case of Canadian Solar’s panels), Steve says the regulatory requirements of residential or commercial based solar arrays are increasing, offsetting any major cost savings going forward. While it might once have made sense to wait for a better price before investing in solar, the wait is now over. Solar, he said, has arrived.
What’s more, this summer the government of Prince Edward Island announced its Solar Electric Rebate Program, covering the costs of installing solar PV up to $1 a watt for residential projects and $.35 a watt for farm or business, up to a maximum of $10,000 or 40 per cent of the overall project, whichever comes first. Financing for the remainder is available through Finance PEI, bringing 8-10 year loans or better within the reach of most Islanders. This is a pilot program meant to kickstart the solar industry on PEI, said Steve. Its rates will not stay this good forever.
When considering solar for one’s home, a big question is rooftop verses ground-mounted solar. Steve’s personal preference is rooftop because it uses less realestate and is cheaper to install. When suitable roofs are not available, however, ground-mounted arrays may be necessary. The mounting mechanism is more expensive, but ground-mounted systems produce more power overall. This is because the angle of the panels can be set more ideally and because ground-mounted arrays cool easier. Solar panels are most productive at colder temperatures, a little known fact which makes Canada an ideal host to this renewable technology.
The majority of projects undertaken by Renewable Lifestyles endeavour to meet the entirety of a customer’s electrical needs, but building a solar array incrementally is also possible. Steve only sells solar panels produced by tier 1 companies, those manufacturers who have their legs under them and can be relied upon to honour warranties. Most of their panels come from Canadian Solar, a tier 1 company with a ten year manufacturing defect warranty and 25 year power output warranty. In Steve’s experience, they produce a very reliable solar panel.
It’s impossible to tell the quality of a solar panel just by looking at it, he said. His concern is that substandard panels will find their place on the PEI market, degrading quickly after installation and costing their owners in the long run. That’s why a tier 1 manufacturer is important, said Steve, as well as the advice of an experienced installer.
In spring of 2019 Steve Howard was elected MLA for the Summerside-South Drive district as a member of the Green Party, taking the role of energy critic with the official opposition. For a long time he’s recognized the opportunity renewable energies offer Prince Edward Island, and now that his business is established, he’s stepping away to effect change in the political theatre.
He would like to see PEI producing all its own power by encouraging citizens to become solar electricity producers, having their excess power bought by Maritime Electric and used locally, or else sold to New Brunswick, using the same cables built to import power to PEI. In this fashion the cost of electricity, and thus the cost of living, on PEI could drop dramatically, he said, and this humble province could lead the rest of Canada in a necessary transition to renewable power.
As well he would like to see more competition. Renewable Lifestyles has installed solar on the Island for sometime, but cannot meet the demand by itself, especially if the Solar Electricity Rebate Program is as successful as he’s expecting, and his pursuit of a self sufficient province comes to fruition.
“100 per cent renewable energy on PEI is absolutely achievable, provided we do it in the right steps. The first step is getting a healthy renewable industry.”
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes. This article originally published with Rural Delivery Magazine.