Learning About Solar

Information Night with the Solar Energy Society of Alberta

I had the opportunity to attend an event last week, hosted by the Solar Energy Society of Alberta at SAIT. I learned a lot and it was completely free! They are a great resource if you are at all interested in solar. (And you should be! Now is a great time to invest in Alberta, the Government of Alberta and many municipalities are offering great incentives.)

The lecture was by Gordon Howell, an electrical engineer and early adopter of the home solar panel movement. I’ve always been extremely interested in solar but knew very little about it. It is daunting task to try and learn more because the numbers mean very little to the uninformed. I needed context and this lecture provided it.

Below are some of my best takeaways:

Full disclaimer: any specific numbers or facts mentioned below are based on my notes and should only be considered as accurate as my note taking ability!

Net Zero does not equal Zero Bills

Generating enough energy for your household does not equal a zero dollar energy bill.

Electricity bills are composed of three types of billing:

  1. Flat Fees (admin. type charges that do not depend on usage)
  2. Energy Usage (Paying per kWh for the actual energy you consume)
  3. Delivery (a charge to use the grid and system, based on how many kWh you use)

It is easy to think that if you generate the amount of electricity your house needs, you’ll have a zero dollar electricity bill. In actuality, Mr. Howell calculated than an average family last year that would have had 857 dollars in annual bills would reduce it to $477 if they were net zero.

That $477 includes the flat fees, of course, and the delivery fees for when you use energy during times that you aren’t generating it.  Below, my rough sketch (extremely unscientific):

Imagine that the graph, horizontally, goes from midnight to midnight; one complete day. You panels will generate most of their energy during the main part of the day (shown in blue) when the sun is strongest.

Your energy usage is shown in red. You will have fairly low usage in the night, you might have a bit of a spike when you wake up and turn on the coffee pot, a lull while you are away at work, then a large spike when you come home again in the evening.

You pay a delivery charge per kWh for all the time that your red line (consumption) is higher than the blue line (generation).

Disappointing for everyone dreaming of electrical anarchy, but a worthwhile investment because:

  1. Energy prices in Alberta are currently extremely low; if energy prices were more typical, then that fee to be on the grid becomes a substantially lower portion of your bill
  2. Being on the grid (and it is not free to maintain!) is still substantially cheaper than a home battery, which Mr. Howell says is about $1500 dollars per year to buy/maintain.

Usage, Cost and Payback


A typical house in Calgary will use about 7200 kWh/year in electrical energy.

How many panels you’ll need to go to net zero depends on how far you stray from ‘average’ consumption, and how much sun your roof gets based on location, orientation, shading, etc..


According to my presentation notes, in average conditions, you might pay about $15,000-17,000, receive about $4100 dollars in incentives and rebates, use about 20 5.5kW modules, and will need about 34 square meters of roof space. 

A breakdown of the costs:

10% planning and permits
25% installation
35% racking, inverters and other
30% PV modules. 


Currently the payback is about 25 years. Not great but doable. (Also to consider, economic payback isn’t the reason we spend a lot of our money – there should be some motivation to do it simply because it is so good for the earth we live on). However as mentioned above, we are experiencing unusually low electricity prices – if rates rose to be more comparable to other North American cities, the payback period would be closer to 15 years.

Emissions Payback

This was one area that had me really happy. I always worry about true environmental impact of new ideas because it is virtually impossible to measure. There is no set formula for this – it depends on the emissions of the place the modules and other components were manufactured compared to electrical generation where they are being used – but all things equal, it sounds like the emissions payback is typically only a couple of years.


If you are interested in learning more, I highly recommend checking out the Solar Energy Society of Alberta website (solaralberta.ca) and maybe I’ll catch you at the Edmonton Eco-Tours in June!

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