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Power from the sun
As the net metering pilot project draws to a close, Yellowknife participants reflect on why solar power works for them

Laura Busch
Northern News Services
Published Friday, September 6, 2013

A three-year pilot project allowing Yellowknife residents to sell excess generated alternative power back to their utility provider has concluded with mixed results.

NNSL photo/graphic

Hendrik and Deidre Falck show off their 16-panel solar array at their home on Ragged Ass Road on Aug. 30. The couple were one of two private residences to tie into the electrical grid during the GNWT's three-year pilot project. - Laura Busch/NNSL photo

Hendrik and Deidre Falck, who have one of the two residential grid-tied solar power systems in Yellowknife, said regulations are needed to make the idea more economically feasible. That, they say, will pave the way for more people to use alternative energy in the city.

After moving to the city from Prelude Lake, the Falcks missed the off-grid lifestyle, in particular producing their own power, said Hendrik. So, when the opportunity came to tie a solar array into the grid, they jumped at it.

"It was a combination of believing in solar power and that it's a good thing, and setting new policies and making sure it's possible to do in the Northwest Territories," he said. “It just required paving some policy ground and for someone to actually want to do it."

The Falcks installed their 16-panel solar array at their Ragged Ass Road home about four years ago, one year before the Public Utilities Board (PUB) gave the go-ahead to begin a net metering pilot project in April of 2010. The pilot was a partnership the Northwest Territories Power Corporation (NTPC) and Northland Utilities Ltd. (NUL) shared with the GNWT Department of Environment and Natural Resources,

The aim was to test the feasibility of allowing consumers to sell surplus renewable energy -- such as solar and wind power – back to the utilities.

On Sept. 30, the pilot project will end. Before that happens, the PUB will make recommendations on what the regulations will be for future grid-tied systems. The board is currently reviewing submissions from NTPC, NUL and other stakeholders and will release its recommendations late this month, said chair Gordon Van Tighem.

Hendrik said the biggest gap in the idea is there are no long-term policies.

"It will be gratifying to see the ground-rules laid out," he said. "It would be really nice if we could follow other provinces that have put real effort into developing alternative energy."

Currently, the Falcks and others participating in the pilot project sell power back to the utility at wholesale value – roughly half of what they pay to buy power from their provider. In Ontario, a utility must buy power from a consumer at the same rate it sells it for, which is being looked at as an option for the NWT.

Considering the present rate of return, Hendrik said investing in a grid-tied system doesn't make sense from a purely financial perspective.

If you want to do it for ideological reasons, it's worthwhile, he said. Otherwise, he added, money would be better spent on high-efficiency appliances and conserving power.

Aside from the roughly $60 worth of power they sold, the Falcks have saved money on their monthly electrical bills – the equivalent of one mid-winter hydro bill per year. Their system cost them roughly $12,000 to install subtracting a $5,000 rebate from the Arctic Energy Alliance, which represents an approximately 10-year cost recovery period.

"There's sort of a mixture of people who would like to do it for ideological reasons and economic reasons. Economically, it's a bit of a harder sell," said Hendrik. "Even at our high electricity prices, the pay back is a long time."

Change of heart

Originally, NTPC opposed extending the program for hydro communities including Yellowknife, recommending net metering only be allowed in the thermal communities that rely on diesel fuel for power. However, after NUL made its submission stating it would buy power from any community, NTPC issued an amended statement to the PUB, stating the same. However, it would not be directly involved in net metering in Yellowknife.

The main barrier to having a successful net metering program is a lack of participants, both utilities stated in their letters to the PUB.

NTL spent $2,280 on its infrastructure to accept power from the two Yellowknife households that participated – and bought back just $87.95 in electricity.

This discrepancy should be reduced if more Yellowknifers start using net metering,

"Northland is of the opinion that the Net Billing Pilot Program has produced very limited success primarily due to a lack of participation," NTL's submission to the board stated.

NTPC's Terence Courtoreille said there is potential in the project but agreed participation was a factor.

"The Net Metering Program is an excellent opportunity for customers to not only displace their own electrical costs, but also sell some power back to the utilities. Yellowknife’s future ability to take advantage of this program will depend entirely on customer uptake," he stated.

Hendrik, however, is hopeful improvements from the PUB will make the grid project an easier sell. With the declining cost of solar technology – plus the fact a battery bank is not required with a grid-tied solar system – using solar power to offset electrical bills is likely to get a whole lot more economical in the near future, he said.

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