FAQs

Solar Basics

1. What is solar energy?

Solar energy takes advantage of the sun’s rays to generate heat or electricity. It is a renewable resource and unique for its ability to generate energy in a quiet, clean, and consistent manner over long periods of time. A solar thermal system produces heat, and a solar photovoltaic (PV) system is often used to produce electricity.

2. Why use solar energy?

A solar system can provide a return on a financial investment while reducing your environmental footprint. A solar system provides a welcome buffer from utility rate increases and shifting electricity prices.  The Sun is a renewable resource and solar modules are very durable.  They are capable of supplying reliable electricity for years after the initial financial investment has been recouped. 

3. How does a residential solar PV system work?

A grid-tied solar PV system is designed to interface safely and reliably with the utility grid.  Any excess solar production is exported to the grid during the day.  At night or during periods of insufficient solar production, the utility grid will seamlessly meet your needs for electricity. 

An off-grid solar PV system is designed to function independently of the electrical grid. It is often accompanied with a back-up generator and battery storage to function when solar electricity is not being produced by the PV system. 

Diagram provided by Skyfire Energy Inc. 

4. Is my home a good site for solar?

An ideal site for solar:

  • Faces true south or close to true south.
  • Has 100% solar access year round.  No shading from trees or buildings to the south.
  • Allows a solar array to tilt up to an angle equal to your latitude. 
  • Meets several other conditions which may or may not be crucial, such as proximity to a grid connection point, access for installation and maintenance, proximity to sources of dust and soot, roof loading concerns, wiring distances, conformance with local regulations and  others. 

A solar contractor will evaluate all of these issues during an on-site solar assessment.  Many sites are not 100% ideal and yet a solar system can still be a worthwhile investment.  

5. What is involved in a solar site assessment?

An on-site solar assessment is a crucial part of the planning process. It is done by a solar installation contractor. Often, depending on the driving distance a solar site assessment will be made at no charge.  The solar site assessment includes a shading analysis.  If the system is to go on the roof, the assessment will include a cursory examination of the roof structure ( a more in-depth engineering analysis may or may not need to happen).  It will also look at the roofing material, access requirements, location for the inverter, wiring distances and more. A site assessment looks at the existing meter and for rural sites a look at the transformer.  

6. Is the assessment process for an on-grid system the same as that for an off-grid system?

No, the design process for an independent system (not hooked up to the utility grid) is substantially more involved.  It will require a complete load analysis to accurately size the system components such as batteries, charge controller, solar array, etc. 

7. Can I put in my own solar system?

It is generally not recommended. Yes, it is possible for a homeowner to install a solar PV system on a piece of property, which they own and live on. There are specific electric code requirements, industry best practices and significant safety issues that need to be taken into consideration with a grid-tie solar PV system. Many of these systems utilize potentially lethal high voltage DC electricity (up to 600V).  

8. Can I put in a grid-tied solar system larger than my usage?

Alberta’s Mirco-generation Act was designed to allow installations up to the size of the owners annual consumption.  In other words, net solar production at the end of a year should not exceed usage.  It is common for solar systems to produce more than consumption in the summer months and then less than their consumption during the winter months.  Any excess exported to the utility grid will be recorded as a credit.

9. How much space do I need for a system?

In bright sunlight, a square foot of a conventional photovoltaic module will yield 12 watts of power. That’s a helpful rule of thumb for calculating a rough estimate of how much area you might need.

10. My building's roof needs replacing soon. Does it make sense to combine the installations?

Yes. If you're planning to replace your roof in the next few years, it may make sense to move that up and install the PV system at the same time as the new roof is going on. Since solar modules can last over 40 years it is in your best interest to not have to remove the solar modules and rack to replace roofing.

11. How long will my system last?

Typically, the solar modules will last 30 to 40 or more years when installed properly and checked periodically.  The only other major part of a grid-tied system is the inverter which will typically last 10-15 years before replacement. Micro-inverters also may have 25 year warranties and be practical in certain systems. Off grid systems contain other components such as batteries which will need to be replaced periodically based on the type of battery.

12. What are the pros and cons of a tracker?

A Lakeland College Tracker study from 2013 compared two arrays: a stationary array and a dual-axis tracker.  With the tracker, the annual output was 31% higher than the stationary array.  The tracker also comes with an additional cost 30% higher than the stationary rack.  It is also more vulnerable to break down since it has a number of moving parts. 

13. With a solar PV system will I have power if the electricity grid goes down?

No, if the utility grid goes down your solar system will also shut down until the grid is once again available. This is to comply with safety regulations. If power back-up is a concern you should consider a special synchronous inverter with an appropriately sized battery bank.

14. Is the price of going solar going to drop more?

The price of solar modules has been driven down to the point that there are a significant number of module manufacturers that have gone out of business as the low price of modules is not sustainable. Regarding module pricing we may be bottoming out for a while.   The long term prognosis is that, because of economies of scale, prices will continue to drop but probably at a slower rate than we have seen in the last few years.  The balance of system costs, such as marketing, system design, labour, permitting, often referred to as “soft costs” will likely trend downward as governments continue to encourage solar development and installers increase installation efficiency.  Solar system soft costs in the well-developed German solar market are about one half the size of the soft-costs of North American installations.

15. How do I get professional design and installation help?

SESA’s Alberta Solar Providers Directory provides a list of over 50 solar companies.  At the top of the Directory click on the Compare Companies link to access a search tool to compare the qualifications and suitability of each solar company listed.  

Solar in Alberta

16. Is Alberta a good place for solar energy?

Alberta has an abundance of solar energy that is free and waiting to be used. Germany has been of the forefront of global solar development. The map below shows that Alberta has a significantly greater solar resource than Germany

Image provided by Natural Resources Canada 

17. What is the ideal tilt angle for my solar array?

A solar module will produce the most electricity when it is perpendicular to the rays of the sun.  Therefore the general rule of thumb for the best annual production is to set the tilt angle equivalent to the latitude. For summer production the ideal angle is latitude - 15°. For winter production set it at latitude +15°.  Edmonton, please check out the NAIT/City of Edmonton Reference Array System on the SESA website for more detail. 

18. Should I change the angle of my array manually throughout the year?

Changing the tilt of the array is up to each solar system owner.  Most on-grid system owners do not change the angle. Off-grid systems have greater needs during the winter months.  It often makes sense to change the tilt twice a year at spring and autumn equinox. Changing the tilt angle twice a year will typically increase annual production by 4-5%. Ground mount arrays are usually easier to access than roof mounts.  

19. How many solar systems are there in Alberta?

The number of Alberta solar systems is growing rapidly. The last several years have seen annual growth rates of 100%. The Solar Society of Alberta provides an updated “odometer” of the number of grid-tied systems and their annual environmental impact at http://www.solaralberta.ca.  

Maintenance

20. Do I have to clean my solar modules?

Modules can require a small amount of maintenance.  They can get covered in dirt, dust, bird droppings or snow. Usually, rain will do most of the cleaning for you.  Rare occasions where regular cleaning is required may happen in the proximity of certain trees, spaying operations or soot.  Completely covering even one cell of a solar module can potentially effect the performance of the entire array until the cell is un-shaded. It is worthwhile to visually inspect your solar array and periodically check its performance. 

21. What are the effects of snow on panels?

A layer of snow can reduce your solar array output to zero. Although clearing accumulated snow can help you squeeze a few more kiloWatt-hours (kWh) from your solar PV system, the months with snow are also the lowest production months. The decision to manually clear snow will vary from system to system and owner to owner. Clearing the snow by getting on the roof can be a risky business and is usually not recommended. 

With an off-grid system snow clearing is usually worthwhile because winter can be the period with the highest demand for electricity and the least amount of sun available. It is a judgment that every solar system owner must make for themselves. 

Please check out the NAIT/City of Edmonton Reference Array System on the SESA website for more detail and data on the effect of snow.

22. What about hail damage?

Solar panels are made with a tempered glass that gets tested and rated for 1″ hail at 88kph. The fact that most modules are set at an angle reduces the likelihood of a direct perpendicular hit. SkyFire Energy reports that “we’ve never seen or heard of a solar module (panel) being damaged from hail” since they have been installing in 2001.

Cost

23. What does a system cost?

Solar PV systems have drastically dropped in price over the last 20 years.  Solar PV systems today can be installed for as low as $2.5 dollars an installed Watt. With a system warranty of 25 years, buying a solar system today is comparable to locking in at today's electricity prices for the next 25 years. 

The average Alberta household consumes about 7200 kWh of electricity per year. In Alberta, this would require a solar PV system of around 6000 installed Watts to reach net-zero electricity use on a yearly basis. Assuming a cost of $3.00/Watt of installed capacity, this system would cost about $18 000. 

While the average household in Alberta consumes about 7200 kWh electricity per year, your own consumption depends on several factors, including:

  • The number of people living in your home
  • Your home's size and type (i.e. whether it's a single-detached house, an apartment, or a condo)
  • The age of your home
  • How well-insulated your home is
  • Which appliances use electricity or gas
  • The energy efficiency of your appliances
  • The weather

24. Can I sell energy back to the grid?

Yes, as of January 1, 2009, Alberta established that the energy retailer must buy back exported power at a rate equivalent to the customer’s retail rate. If you buy for 8 cents per kilowatt hour you will be credited at 8 cents per kilowatt hour. This is called Net Billing and requires a Solar PV Utility Interactive system to feed back to the grid. There are ongoing discussions in Alberta about improving the price paid for solar electricity.

25. If I produce excess electricity, will my utilities send me a cheque?

The utilities will give you a credit on your bill.  Some retails will pay you extra for your solar produced. These companies include Alberta Cooperative Energy (ACE), Park Power, and EQUS. 

26. Are there government incentives available?

Please view our Grants and Incentives Page for more information!

There is a Federal 50% accelerated Capital Cost Allowance in Canada. Solar PV equipment used for a business is included in this incentive and further information can be found at http://oee.nrcan.gc.ca/corporate/1513. This link also contains a list of other solar incentive programs throughout Canada. 

27. Do I need special insurance requirements?

Standard homeowner’s insurance policies usually suffice to meet electric utility requirements. Electric utilities usually require that homeowners who take advantage of net metering sign an interconnection agreement.

28. Can I Lease a solar PV system?

Yes, the utility ENMAX offers customers in Alberta a leasing option for their solar PV system.  Details and sign-up page: https://www.enmax.com/home/renewable-energy

29. What is the expected return on investment for a residential or commercial solar system?

We recommend having a site assessment done by a reputable contractor to determine the expected ROI on your solar proposal. This is due to the high number of site-specific factors that play a role in determining the ROI of each individual project. The many factors required for this estimation can be too highly variable between different projects for us to provide you with any ROI estimates. There are many contractors who will do this for you free of charge.

Solar Work

30. How do I get into the industry?

Investigate the different job, presentation, volunteering, and networking opportunities that are available in the solar industry. Some opportunities will require specialized training which can be provided by educational institutions and private training groups. A list of solar education providers can be found on our website. Other opportunities will require no specific training or expertise. A well trained individual with a good ability to seek out opportunities and provide very high value will be welcomed into the solar industry. 

SESA would like to thank the following for their contributions to the Solar Alberta FAQ:

Updated September 5, 2015