Solar power is one of the hottest forms of renewable energy! Solar panels are popping up on homes, businesses and schools across Canada and helping people reduce their electricity bills. Communities are filling open spaces with rows and rows of solar panels ("solar farms") and selling the electricity to bring money into their community.
With all the buzz about solar power, it can be hard to sort out the basics: How does solar power work? How do you know if solar is right for your community? What are the advantages and disadvantages of going solar?
There are two main methods of harnessing the sun's energy: solar photovoltaic (PV) and solar thermal.
It's pretty common to see solar panels mounted on buildings or installed at ground level – those are most likely solar PV. The panels turn the sun's energy into electricity for your home or to "feed back" into your local power system (grid). Roof mounted systems are excellent if you lack space on the ground, but this is only an option if you can install the panels at the correct angle. Ground mounted systems are better for large projects and, with such a system, you can set up the ideal orientation of the panels. You can even use a system that rotates the panels throughout the day, to follow the sun and receive the maximum amount of solar exposure.
A PV system produces the type of electricity known as Direct Current(DC), while home appliances and gadgets run on Alternating Current(AC). A PV system uses an inverter to convert DC from the solar PV system to AC. You may also need a battery to store the electricity until it is required.
Solar thermal is not as well-known as solar PV. Solar thermal collectors use the sun to heat water or air for use in the house or for other uses (some collectors may be mistaken for solar PV panels). This reduces the workload of water heaters and/or furnaces.
A solar thermal system may serve a single home or building, or it may be as large as a district heating plant serving a community, with hundreds of square meters of solar collectors.
Right now solar PV technology has advanced further and has proven more useful in communities across Canada, so it is the focus for the rest of this article.
Click on the plus buttons below to see the types of questions you should ask yourself if you community is interested in pursuing solar. These are just initial questions though. Truly pursuing a project requires much more detail and research.
Do you want to generate revenue for the community? Then you need to find out what price your power authority is paying for solar-generated energy and if this will be enough to bring you a profit. Prices and incentive programs vary across the country.
Do you want to generate electricity for homes and buildings and reduce the need for other forms of energy? Do research into costs and consider the remaining questions below.
Are there enough hours of light in a year to make the investment pay off? For example, your latitude (how far North you are) is an important factor; generally, the higher your latitude, the less solar radiation you receive meaning there is less energy for the panels to pick up. Is there a suitable area, on the ground or on rooftops, away from obstructions that would block the sunlight? If you are looking at a roof top mounted system, can the roof support the panel weight? If the roof is angled, does it face south (best for catching some rays!)?
This will affect the payback period – the time it takes for the solar PV investment to pay for itself in the form of reduced energy costs, or in profits from selling the energy. If electricity is very cheap, the payback will be longer. The typical payback is 10-20 years but if you're replacing diesel, the payback time will be shorter.
Here are some videos of Indigenous solar projects to illustrate what it takes to plan and build a solar project:
Use the map below to see existing projects solar projects that include Indigenous participation. Click on a map dot to learn more about the projects.
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