Installing solar panels on home rooftops to produce electricity is still pretty rare – only about one in 30 homes have them in the United States and one in 300 here in Canada. However, they will become increasingly common over the next decade and for reasons you may not expect.
Single solar panels are about the size of a picnic table top. When the sun shines on the special material, they convert the sun’s energy into electricity. The power is then transported on copper wires into the home to power lights, heat ovens and charge electric cars.
A typical home solar system has 20 to 30 panels on the roof. When the sun is shining, the amount of electricity generated can be five to 10 times more than a home’s consumption. When the home is producing more electricity than it needs, the excess power flows on copper wires to other homes.
Traditionally, homeowners have installed solar panels to reduce their utility bills, because they don’t need to buy as much electricity from the power company. And when the sun really shines, they can also sell electricity back to the utility and make money.
Of course, one limitation is that solar energy is only available when the sun is shining. Solar panels can power your air conditioner on a sunny day, but they don’t generate electricity at night when you want to cook a late dinner or watch television. There’s also the challenge of seasonality: While large amounts of electricity are generated during Canada’s long summer days, much less power is produced during the short, dim winter days.
Battery storage is the solution for extending the time that solar energy is available to a homeowner. The storage system will charge up when the sun is out; come evening, the homeowner can power their appliances from a large battery stored in the basement or garage.
While the combined home solar and battery systems are still rare, sales are starting to increase in places such as Texas and California. These states have suffered from extended power outages from extreme weather. Instead of sitting in the dark, people with home solar and battery systems can reliably use their own electricity, day and night.
While the two states have been experiencing most of the extreme weather-related power outages lately, climate change is expected to make these disruptive events more frequent and widespread over the coming decades. So to ensure safe, reliable and affordable power, it is likely that more homeowners will want to install solar panels and battery systems in the future.
Another trend that will boost rooftop solar is more people buying electric cars. While the main reason people will purchase EVs is to move around, the car’s battery can also provide backup power for the home if and when it is needed.
For example, the battery in Ford’s F-150 Lightning electric truck is advertised to fully power a home for three days and last 10 days if people ration their power use. The duration would be extended even further if the home had rooftop solar, since the truck’s battery would be topped-up when the solar panels generate electricity during the day. While not all EV makers are offering the option to power the home today, it is likely to become a standard feature over the next several years.
How you pay for rooftop solar has been another barrier for adoption. Solar-panel installation can cost a homeowner in the range of $20,000. Currently, the federal government is subsidizing $5,000 of this cost with the Greener Homes Grant. But even with the government assistance, most people cannot afford to pay that amount up front.
However, the financing options are starting to change. In Europe and the United States, loan programs that offer options such as “zero down” financing are making solar panels much more affordable. More flexible financing is likely to arrive in Canada in the near future.
To smooth the way for small-scale solar adoption, governments at all levels – from provinces to municipalities – as well as utilities and local distribution companies need to knock down the roadblocks. For instance, jurisdictions such as Nova Scotia have considered charging extra fees for homeowners to sell power back to the grid. Fortunately, this idea was struck down. In some provinces, rooftop solar panel owners are forced to sell their power at a discount to what they pay when they buy electricity from the grid. At the local level, onerous requirements and processes for permitting can delay applications and leave customers underserved.
While reducing energy bills has been the historical reason for installing rooftop solar, the biggest push over the next decade may come from insuring against extreme weather that can cause power outages. The free option to use your newly purchased electric car for home battery storage, along with new financing options will make the systems even more accessible.
Peace of mind in having cheap, clean, safe and reliable power are strong motivators to change the way people get electricity.
This was originally published in the Globe and Mail.