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Solar Panels on the Prairies – Hope and Disappointment

A Guest Blog Submission

Canadians are being told that solar panels are a worthwhile investment and that they provide energy independence and a return on investment – sometimes even a return on power generation if the system is hooked up to the grid. Presently, Prairie Climate Centre is running a video claiming that wind turbines and solar panels on a farm will take you from ‘risk to resiliency’ – presumably touting industrial scale installations which are highly subsidized by taxpayers So, if the public are paying for these adventures in alternative energy, we should know how well they work.  Here’s a small scale example for consideration.

 

A Canadian farmer living in a remote prairie location installed a solar system hoping to benefit from the claims many government officials make about solar panels – that they provide suitable back-up power, potential return on the grid and that there is a positive cost-benefit on investment.

 

We received the following unsolicited commentary and photos from the individual who preferred to remain anonymous, but they did agree to share their experience for the benefit of others. The following has been nominally edited for clarification.

 

I decided to embark on this journey for two reasons….

I suppose the first was for convenience.  Because of continued interruptions of electric service in my region, I wanted to have a backup system to protect my appliances and not be compromised during electric outages.  Secondly, I have been interested in solar power for decades and do believe in harnessing energy that is provided to us every day to use as efficiently as possible.

 

I have an array of eight panels that are connected to batteries and then an inverter to supplement my consumption and provide electricity to select parts of my house during power outages.  I also have an array of 10 panels that connects directly into the power grid and operates on a bi-directional power meter with the utility company.  Both arrays are ground mounted. The second array is also monitored through the internet by a company called Enphase Energy and provides me with up to the minute energy production reports.

Photo 1 – Installed solar system technical details

 

Photo 2 – Solar panel array

 

The system has been operating now for 14 months and works reasonably well.

 

Since October 2016 to January 2018 inclusive I have consumed 33894 kwh and sent 2394 kwh back into the grid from the 10-panel array.  The 8-panel array is 12 volt and is tied to the system and batteries with an inverter

 

Performance Challenges – Clouds and Snow

The first thing I became aware of is the reduced production even when thin layers of clouds block the sun.  If I do not have direct sunlight on the panels, there is very reduced production as observed from the enphase reports..  The next thing I observed was that even a light skiff of snow on the panels will prevent electric production. Even if tilted at an angle of 60 degrees or more to the ground, the panels seem to magically attract snow sometimes to a significant depth of 10 cm or more. It will slowly melt off when the sun appears but typically our winters have consecutive days of cloud cover.  If the sky does clear, it is usually late in the afternoon and left to nature, there is not enough heat in the sun to clear the panels.  I manually clear the snow with a broom so as to capture as much energy as possible.

Photo 3 – Dec. 15, 2017

Photo 3, taken on Dec 15, 2017, is rather unique as it shows an overnight snow shower – the thickness of the snow as it slides off the array tilted at 45 degrees – as it heats up from the midday sun.

The above photo shows very little snowfall on the surrounding area but already a significant pile on the ground in front of the array, snow that I have swept off the panels.  I have a broom that I use to clean the panels almost every morning in the winter time and we have been known to have snow in this area typically eight months of the year. This makes me wonder what happens in large commercial units.  The snow does eventually melt off but depending on the depth and with only intermittent sun during most days, it can take several days for the panels to clean themselves which means lost production opportunity. Also, with the added weight of snow, I wonder how many roof installations will damage the structure underneath.

 

Summer offers best production – But you most need power in Winter

I can tell you that my best month of production in 2017 was July of course and the bank of 10 panels produced 432 kw hours. Monthly production in 2017 starting with January – 201, 234, 252, 398, 414, 369, 432, 383, 266, 261,162, and 160.  Needless to say, I am disappointed especially when considering the investment.  I would like to see our Minister McKenna install a system on her own home at her own cost and try to live off the grid as she suggests the citizens of this country should.

 

I built my own support structure and as such I am able to tilt it as the sun’s declination angle changes.  I do not know if that has any benefit though.  It’s kind of like the analogy of checking the pressure in your car tire

Photo 4 – March 7, 2017

s to make sure they are at optimum so as to get better gas mileage when even small breeze head on or a tail wind affects your mileage a hundred times more.  A skiff of cloud greatly decreases production and overcast sky limits production.  This I can prove by watching the bar graphs from my Enlighten monitor which is updated every few minutes

 

A photo of the arrays in the middle of a blizzard on March 7 2017.  Even with strong winds, the panels are covered in snow.

 

 Does it Pay?

I have invested about $25000.00 in my system but that includes having to upgrade the power panel in my house but does not include the cost of the structure to hold the arrays as that was built from my own material.

 

Anyway, to answer your questions – I have a bidirectional meter in my yard that measures electricity that I consume from the grid and it also measures excess electricity produced by the panels when my consumption is low that I send back into the grid on an ongoing basis.

 

Do I get paid for that?  The short answer is yes – it shows up as a credit on my power bill.  Unfortunately, I consume way more than I send back so my power bills have not decreased significantly. I designed the system based on my previous power consumption but then added some high energy fixtures before I had the system up and running making it difficult to compare current to previous costs. Objectively, most of my energy consumption occurs outside of daylight hours for light and heat so logically the panels are not producing when I need them most.

 

Other Concerns

 

My last huge concern is the disposal of these panels at the end of their lifespan which I am told is about 30 years.  I live in a very sparsely populated area and can predict that the panels with all their contaminants (mercury)  will end up in a local landfill instead of being recycled because of the cost and availability of  a recycling service. At my age, I don’t expect to be around to worry about it but somebody someday will have to deal with it. The cost of disposal is a very real cost that needs to be added if you are trying to calculate efficiency of solar production.

 

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Additional Reading:

Cambridge Prof. Michael J. Kelly weighs in on wind and solar as ‘total madness’ – and that they do not address climate change, nor can they support even basic society, let alone advanced civilization.

1 Comment

  1. Having been a leading pioneer of the early solar heating industry I am pretty well informed on the positive and negative factors related to many solar factors. Simple to say that without the help of government subsides the efficiency of ‘pure solar’ is not really exciting. For water heating such as swimming pools it is a truly wonderful adjunct more than doubling the comfortable use of the pool. However when we talk about HOT water the performance only meets a low percentage unless the water is also a like small amount.

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