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Onboard the solar train

photo: Amy Huva 2013

April First was not only April Fools' Day; it was also the second birthday of the solar panels on the roof of my parents' house in Australia.

When the solar panels went in two years ago making the solar hot water system that’s been on the roof for about 20 years now look old and slightly shabby, my parents weren’t sure how much solar power they were going to generate. When the electricity meter first started spinning backwards as the panels were feeding into the grid, it was pretty exciting.

So now that the panels have been through two summers, how are they doing? They produced 4,056kWh (kilowatt hours) between April 1st 2011 and April 3rd 2013, which is enough power to run a household of four people for 202 days of peak usage!

8 photovoltaic panels on the left and the solar hot water system with the tank at the back in Melbourne, Australia (photo: Amy Huva 2013)

Obviously, this power didn’t all come at once, so I sat down with the latest bill and dove a bit deeper into the numbers with my dad. By our calculations, the Angry Summer that Australia just sweltered through that broke all kinds of temperature records saw a 3% increase in the solar generation of the panels from the summer before.

Once the Smart Meter was installed replacing the old meter a month or two after installing the panels, my family were able to get the 66 cent per kWh tariff, which wasn’t able to be counted by the electricity company from the old meters. Kind of like upgrading to the smartphone version of a power meter.

During the heatwave, the panels were producing around 10 – 12kWh each day, although not much was being fed into the grid, as they needed to turn the air conditioning on each afternoon to try and cool the house down enough to get some sleep. However, I’m sure I would have slept better through the heatwave if I’d known the air conditioning was being run by the solar power from the scorching sun.

In winter when there’s not as much sunshine, the solar panels produce an average of 5.5kWh each day, of which my family uses approx 3.5kWh and feeds the remaining 2kWh into the grid earning 66 cents for every kilowatt hour.

This has led to all kinds of exciting things like the negative bill my dad is expecting in the next few weeks for the end of the quarter that covers the summer/fall period of January to April.  Yes, that’s right – the power company is going to be paying him.

The bill for the end of spring and the beginning of summer (September to December) was a whopping $2.52 for a whole quarter of electricity (stop and think for a second how much your quarterly Hydro bill comes to) because while the household used $261.16 worth of electricity, they also fed $258.64 worth of solar electricity back into the grid!

Now I can hear you all starting to think ‘but that won’t work in Vancouver – it rains too often!’ and to an extent that is true, but it doesn’t mean that solar doesn’t have a place Vancouver or Canada.

Germany, a country that doesn’t have a lot of sunlight either has had a huge boom in localised solar (panels on your roof, community solar projects etc) over the past few years resulting in a majority of the country’s solar panels being owned locally.

Renewable energy ownership in Germany (by John Farrell at the Institute for Local Self Reliance)

Why are people in a cloudy country buying solar panels for their roofs if they’re only going to get covered with snow in the winter? Because when you use solar in a hybrid system it works really well, and with the cost of solar panels coming down so quickly, it makes economic sense.

Recently, Deutsche Bank released a report that predicted solar will reach grid parity with fossil fuels in certain markets by 2014. Yes, that’s correct – local solar is likely going to be just as cheap as fossil fuel energy in the next year or two.

In the meantime, the solar panels on my parent’s roof are sitting there happily absorbing all the sunlight they can and continuing to tick over the power meter, earning their keep. This is a slice of the future of energy generation, and it’s not fossil fuels. 

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