To build or to buy - Could green energy providers be a better option than home solar

Read time: 9 mins
Domestic solar panels are seen by some as being a quintessential part of a low-carbon household, yet they may not be a practical or affordable solution for many Canadians.

It has never been difficult to see the green benefits of solar energy over billowing smokestacks, yet Canada remains behind in the adoption of solar power in the homes of its citizens, despite the fact that renewable power has arguably never been more accessible or necessary for the adoption of sustainable energy practices. Countries such as Germany and the UK currently produce over 7% and 9% of their net annual electricity by solar means (including both household and grid)1, with over 1 million households in the UK now fitted for solar capture and 9 million more predicted to join them by 20202. These countries are by no means bucking the trend in Europe, with the EU accounting for 69% of global solar energy production3.

This huge surge in demand for solar energy is driven by many factors, most of which should be equally powerful in pushing Canadians towards the option of domestic solar. Whilst until recently, the difficulty of acquiring efficient and easy to install batteries, essential for storing energy from peak hours for use in the evening or cloudy periods was a major stumbling block for any green minded citizen without electronic know how, options such as Tesla's’ ‘Powerwall’ offered a customer friendly alternative, and sold out internationally within months. Despite critics pointing to the standard models 2Kw output as being too small to take a house of the grid, the release was described as a key step in ‘weaning the world off fossil fuels’ by Tesla founder, Elon Musk4. Tesla has not been the only household name pushing to make home solar more accessible; Google released ‘Project Sunroof’ in late 2015, which combines google maps with historical weather data to show how much energy a roof could capture and in turn how much energy you could save5, was rolled out in San Francisco, Boston and Fresno, with the a national or international rollout possible in 2016, due to its positive reception.

Canada has by no means been slovenly in the adaptation of renewables as a whole, with 16.9% of energy coming from renewable sources as of 20166 (ahead of the 11.1% seen in the US), yet under 2% of Canada's total power is produced from solar energy. Reasons behind this could include many factors, such as the lack of significant solar subsidies seen in most European countries, which can help to reduce installation fees that can be a daunting $30,000 US and more (the Canadian government currently only offers a $1,250 rebate towards green energy renovation), or the lack in many provinces of a grid feed in tariff system (with the exception of Ontario, which has offered feed in since 2009), allowing owners to pay their surplus electricity to the network and profit from surplus power.

With these facts in mind, many Canadian could be forgiven for ditching dreams of a renewably home, with the costs and complications of going off grid preventing many from turning this into a reality. Could there be a realistic alternative in switching to a sustainable provider on the grid. Whilst certainly cheaper in the short term, is this really as green an option as home solar, or another example of greenwashing? And if it is a green option, does it make financial sense in the long run?

For the basis of assessing which of these choices makes them most sense, both financially and viably I will be working under the assumption of a family of four living in a detached home. Across Canada, the carbon footprint of an average four person household varies greatly, from 15.86 tons in British Columbia to 27.29 tons in Saskatchewan7. This serves to give a rough working outline of the potential environmental savings, but for those curious to see what your household's footprint looks like, I highly recommend a trip across to offsets.greeningsacredspaces.org, who have a fantastic tool for estimating your own household footprint by lifestyle, home type and household number.

My hypothetical family of four live in Ontario, and use the province average of 800kWh a month8. Living in a house without sealed windows, eco friendly appliances or efficient heating systems, their predicted carbon footprint for the year would would be 21.13t CO2, which in this example would include heating and cooking. If they were to take on the services of a green power provider, such as Bullfrog energy they would be estimated to reduce this footprint by 18.43t CO2 every single year, which would slash their carbon footprint by 85% annually9, which is undoubtedly a huge saving for any green minded family. Whilst Bullfrog is the most well known service provider, working nationally across Canada and providing hydroelectric and wind power, there are also provincially available options, such as Encor Chirp, a subsidy of Epcor, who offer solar, wind and hydroelectric power in the same way bullfrog does to the residents of Alberta, boasting the ability to reduce a household's carbon footprint by 80-90%10.

This is great news from an environmental standpoint, but if the primary reason to use a green energy provider is to avoid the high costs associated with the installation and storage of clean energy through home production, does this alternative route provide the much desired savings needed to make this a viable option for the average Canadian?

Before considering taking one of these companies up it is important to understand that they do not work like traditional energy providers. Whilst providers like Epcor offer ‘greening’ services as an option on their standard power plans, Bullfrog and its competitors do not become your primary energy provider, but are essentially a supplementary service you purchase on top of your current provider. When you sign up, they ensure that every kWh of electricity that your home draws through the grid is matched with an equivalent input of electricity created from renewable sources. This in no way impinges on their environmental credentials, yet service charges, which can be as low as 2.5 cents per kWh with Bullfrog, or 95 cents a day with Encor Chirp, still add up over the year. With the average Canadian household using between 10-12000 kWh, choosing to neutralise your footprint in this manner would cost another $250-300 a year, increasing your electricity bills by 10-20% based on estimates of some of Canada's largest providers.

Percentage of household electricity ‘greened’*

Tonnes of CO2 saved annually

100%

18.4 tonnes

50%

8.5 tonnes

15%

2.3 tonnes

*based on average annual energy usage (9600kWh) of family of four in Ontario, living in an unmodernised home.

Both Federal and provincial governments across Canada continually reaffirm their commitment to renewable energy, and as shown above, have both considered and implemented financial incentives both for the installation of solar power and payment to homeowners for feeding surplus energy into the system. Whilst solar installation companies boast that this gives homeowners up to a 10% annual return on their $25-40000 investment, allowing them to pay off their costs in 10 years and reap free solar energy from this point on, the fact remains that this outcome is by no means guaranteed. A textbook example of this can be seen in the UK currently, where budget shortages have led to the proposed reduction of both feed in payments and installation assistance1112. Homeowners therefore may be taking a gamble with installation, with there being a strong argument that if they can’t realistically ride out the installation fees in a situation where feed in payments are removed, reduced or never materialise, than they may risk sinking into debt. Furthermore, most solar systems are rated to last 25-40 years before needing replacement, meaning the annual cost of a domestic solar system (discounting repairs, interest payments and feed in payments) is between $1000 and $1600, over four times the cost of employing the services of a green power provider. In an uncertain time for policy, thrifty folks may well be better off letting someone else generate green energy for them. Likewise this provides a route to eco-friendly electricity for the many of us who live in apartments, shared housing and rented properties, where major installations are impossible, due to building regulation, short periods of occupation or the simple lack of a roof. For couples and individual dwellers, fees should be even lower, as these households are likely to use far less annually than the family of four posited above.

Different providers will suit customers differently depending on individual circumstance; a cutting edge household equipped with efficient smart heating, thermal glass and intelligent lighting would gain from paying to green their electricity per kWh, in the manner Bullfrog offers, whilst the owner of a century home, complete with untaped single glazed windows and 15 year old air conditioning may see dividends in paying a flat monthly rate, to prevent hair raising bills in the peak of summer or winter. Of course, there will be those for whom $360 may be too large a chunk out of their annual budget; this has not gone unnoticed by green providers, some of whom, including Epcor offer partial greening, weighted to 15 & 50% of your monthly usage, providing leeway for people who need to balance the ability to reduce their carbon footprint with maintaining a manageable budget. By ‘greening’ only 50% of their electricity, Canadian households on average would reduce their carbon footprint by 8.45 tons, whilst doing this for as little as 15% of your energy would still save over 2.3 tons of carbon every year!

With more and more utility providers seeing the importance of meeting their customers environmental expectations, using a service like those above may make sense for many Canadians. It is important to note however, that using solar technology in the home is by no means nullified by these options. Solar panels in the home arguably have the environmental edge over green energy, as they make use of ‘dead space’ whereas large solar farms can take up valuable farmland or eat into natural wilderness, potentially causing damage to local ecosystems. Likewise, most green providers in Canada blend solar power with wind, wave and hydroelectric power each of which, despite being overwhelmingly superior to fossil fuels, have their own environmental concerns; if you feel strongly about the detriments of one of these alternative renewable sources, than the extra investment in home solar can allow you to steer clear of these sources in a way that using a provider wouldn’t.

In short, if you have the money, can face the future costs of upkeep, and are faithful in increasingly green government policy making green feed in policies likely in the future, then a domestic solar system may be for you. However for the many of us who can’t or won’t pursue this due to lack of cash, time or a suitable property, using a green power supplier may be the exactly what you need to slash your carbon footprint with minimal fuss.

 

1Global outlook for solar power 2015-2019. (2014). Solar Power Europe.

2Nation Statistics- Solar photovoltaics deployment. (2014). Retrieved March 17, 2016 from https: //www .gov.uk/government / statistics/solar-photovoltaics-deployment- Department of Energy and Climate Change

3Global market outlook for photovoltaics until 2016. (2013) Solar Power Europe.

4 Tesla battery announced as key to weaning the world off fossil fuels. (2015) Power Engineering international.

5 Project Sunroof. (2015). Retrieved March 31, 2016, from https://www.google.com/get/sunroof#p=0

6 Statistics Canada. Energy Statistics Handbook. Catalogue no. 57-601-X. January 2009.

8 Backgrounder – May 1 electricity price change. (2014) Ontario Energy Board.

9 Bullfrog Energy (personal communication March 10, 2016)

10 Epcor (personal communication March 18, 2016)

11Macalister, T. (2015, December 17). UK solar panel subsidy cuts branded 'huge and misguided' Retrieved March 24, 2016.

12 Department of Energy and Climate Change. (2015, December 17). Changes to renewables subsidies. Retrieved March 26, 2016.

 

 

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