It’s an amazing concept which always seemed to dazzle in science class: Solar energy. But how exactly does it work?
You probably know the basics, solar cells – known as photovoltaic cells – convert sunlight to direct current electricity.
The panels then send power to the lights and appliances in your home or business, and the utility meter measures the energy you draw and feed it back to the grid.
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Can B.C. let the sun shine on solar energy?
On the West Coast, everyone talks a big game with hopes for a green future, to continually reduce the burning of fossil fuels and produce clean energy, but some argue that a potential impact player remains on the sidelines.
Patrick Bateman with the Canadian Solar Industries Association, also known as CanSIA, says the power of the sun represents untapped potential for consumers as a ‘green’ form of energy.
“Solar energy is one of the fastest growing forms of clean technology in the world today. With the new lens of climate change and the effort we’re all taking to mitigate and adapt to climate change, solar energy is being thrust into the forefront.”
And yet despite the benefits of solar energy, it’s been a slow go.
Bateman admits selling solar energy hasn’t been easy in the public eye.
“It’s a process and you can’t change the public’s mind overnight. We’re out engaging with the public and educating them and working with municipalities. It’s been an ongoing, slow process. There are companies in B.C. who have been at it for 15 to 20 years and they’ll tell you that you have to speak with people one person at a time.”
But he says there is hope for solar; what people on the West Coast have been seeing over recent summers are hot and dry days, which have left a lot of people in the Lower Mainland using a lot of energy for air conditioning and fans.
Bateman says solar would be particularly beneficial during those summer months.
“The beauty of solar is that it’s mostly productive in the summer, it helps to take some of the strain off some of those hydro resevoirs so that you don’t run into problems when you have these droughts.”
One of the biggest factors hindering solar energy’s growth is cost.
“Cost is the number one misperception that we deal with. It’s difficult for members of the public to keep track of technological pace at the rate of which it happens in the solar sector. Most people still kind of think of solar as something on space satellites, but have no idea that in the last five years the cost of the technology has decreased about four or five-fold.”
However, Bateman admits like all forms of energy, making a switch towards solar power doesn’t eliminate costs completely.
“There’s no way to make that energy cost disappear; if you’re going to consume the energy, you have to pay the bill. The good news with a lot of solar companies is many offer approaches to the system like leasing or finance, so what you can do is spread those payments out over many years in the same way you’re already doing in paying your energy bills.”
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The future of solar energy
“I’ll take my crystal ball out and say in the next three to five years, what we’ll see is the cost of solar energy continuing to decline at equal or close to the rate it’s been coming down the last few years. That’s really going to knock off the final little bit of premiums associated with solar energy and really bring it in line directly with the other options that are out there.”
Bateman says it’s much easier to look into the past and think what could’ve been than to look forward and hope for what’s coming. But both Bateman and those in the solar sector are optimistic that both British Columbia and Canada as a whole have an eye on the industry and see it as another potential player in battling climate change with renewable energy.