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Alberta solar energy on the rise

Outlook for the solar industry in Alberta is sunny with just a few clouds

Improvements in solar panel technology along with Alberta’s number of sunny days has the solar industry optimistic, but there are still hurdles to overcome.

Despite the high latitudes, the Prairie provinces offer many days of sunlight, giving Calgary the same solar potential as Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

“We have a fantastic solar resource here,” said engineer David Vonesch of Skyfire Energy, a Western Canada solar contractor.

“A system installed here will produce about 50 per cent more than that same system installed in Germany, where there is more solar than anywhere in the world.” Alberta’s electricity generation is still dominated by coal and natural gas. Solar contributes 0.05 per cent of the total generating capacity in the province, according to the Solar Energy Association of Alberta.

“With our existing regulatory environment, it isn’t a level playing field for solar,” said Vonesch.

“We are competing against subsidies for natural gas exploration, for carbon capture and storage for coal and in-situ gas generation.” The Alberta government released a new climate-change plan on Nov. 22, which included intentions for the province’s electricity production to include up to 30 per cent renewable sources by 2030.

Alberta burns more coal for electricity than any of the other provinces combined, but the provincial government intends for renewables to replace two thirds of current coal energy capacity.

Vanesch said the plan is “fairly short on details,” but gives the industry reason to be optimistic.

The number of micro-generators (which generate under one MW of electricity) have been increasing throughout the province.

According to the Alberta Electric System Operator, there were 1,104 micro-generating solar sites and 95 sites that used wind or other alternative electricity sources in May 2015.

The total capacity for micro-generation has increased 18 times in the last five years.

SAIT offers a solar panel installation course for electricians and funds research in green technologies.

“We have introduced hundreds of trade apprentices and technology students to solar energy and they all could apply their skills to solar systems,” said Tom Jackman, the principal investigator for renewable energy at SAIT.

Installation of solar systems is relatively easy, said Jackman, but integrating the panels into buildings to maximize energy potential is a challenge.

Often, buildings are notdesigned to hold the extra solar infrastructure, and there is also the task of making “the solar system a positive feature in the appearance of the building, not a piece of hardware bolted on top.” Jackman said solar systems are “proven and reliable,” but are dampened by a lack of consumer awareness and a “neutral” regulatory environment, where there are no incentives for solar development.

“In Alberta we are allowed to pollute for free, which most people choose to do rather than invest in solar equipment that will provide energy without pollution.” With other jurisdictions such as Ontario and Germany experimenting with solar incentives, the costs have come down.

“Alberta is looking at integrating more solar at a good time,” said Vanesch.

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