The Growing Forward Solar PV Equipment pilot ran from January 2012 to March 2013. Through program funding of over $900,00, approximately 491.5 kW of farm scale solar photovoltaic projects on 61 sites were interconnected to the Alberta electricity grid under the Micro Generation Regulation. The total installed capacity of the 491.5 kW includes leveraged capacity, where some projects installed more kilowatts beyond the funding. Project sizes were 15 kW and under.
These 61 projects included both solar-contractor-installed projects and self-installed projects. A project was considered a self-installed project if the producer/owner directly purchased and installed the majority of the components, with final electrical connections by a licensed electrician. All contractor installed and self-installed projects were fully permitted and inspected.
All projects had to qualify as a micro generator under the Micro Generation Regulation and be approved for interconnection by their local wire service provider. The projects were spread across at approximately six wire service provider areas and several counties. Some of the smaller wire service providers/wire owners had not had any previous experience in dealing with micro genration applications and the municipal laws across the local areas had differences in permitting requirements for solar photovoltaics.
There were 11 solar contractor companies that installed 45 projects under the program, and 9 solar retail or distribution companies that sold products for self installation.
Of the 61 projects, 24 were roof mounted installations and 37 were fround mount installations (of which 1 site considered as a ground mount had a portion of both roof and ground mount). Pole mounted modules were counted as ground mount. Of 24 roof mounted
projects, 4 were self installed and of the 37 ground mount projects, 12 were self installed.
Commissioning reports were submitted and included total project costs as well as the solar energy meter reading at the time of commissioning. Participants must submit a minimum of 3 years of quarterly energy production readings. Reporting from the majority of participants will be completed by March 2016.
Although not all energy reporting is complete, most sites experienced energy production that is as good as expected for their geographic location based on the solar PV Maps published by Natural Resources Canada. Some sites have had overproduction, but none to a significant extent. There have been a few sites under producing, compared to expectations, which may be due to weather related issues, such as more cloudy/rainy periods than expected, especially during the flood year. In general, the estimate that solar photovoltaics (PV) are reliable, predictable and low maintenance technology appears to be confirmed.
Most solar contractors appeared to have been responsive to producers/owners where system issues arose, and overall very few producers/owners reported system problems. The most notable issue was with a site that had about 5kW of their entire system off-line for over 1.5 years, which appears to be the result of technical problems possibly from poor installation practices causing equipment damage. Unfortunately, the installer was largey unresponsive on the issue, which was still unresolved as of October 2015.
Solar PV installations are becoming more common, but are still not widespread. Due to a lack of familarity of some inspectors with solar PV, electrical inspections may not always catch all deficiencies related to some unique aspects of solar PV. As well, the non electric code issues (such as material selection) that relate to best practice on solar PV installations seems to vary between solar contractors, and varies for self installed projects, and could have at least some minor impacts on system longevity and performance.
Based on the total installed project costs of producers/owner, many of the installed solar PV systems had a long payback window for their simple payback calculation (this was influenced in large measure by the retail energy rate they chose). Even with the grant received, many projects did not fall lower than a 20 year payback.
Particpants in the program were also asked to voluntarily reply with comments or rate their overall satisfaction with their solar PV project. Most participants, even those where a strict economic evaluation would show their system to be "uneconomical", reported being pleased with their system. Additionally many respondents, even those with "uneconomical" systems, indicated they were considering increasing their installed capacity of solar PV.
At least one particpant concluded that they were disappointed with their solar PV system 's economics, even with the grant amount and indicated that in retrospect they would have rather taken their own financial contribution and invested in "blue chip stock". Their position is that they would impact investment returns.
Total installed projects costs were quite variable, which appears highly influenced by how competitively the producer/owner sought out pricing. Although it can be great to use local installers, it is still important to be aware of competitive pricing.
The Alberta solar PV contractor industry, like any industry, has poor performers that do poor work, and there is presently no clear mechanism to eliminate or avoid these contractors, so doing your homework before selecting a contractor is essential.
Even as market pricing becomes more competetive, a true economic evaluation shows relatively long periods for solar PV investment payback. Although you may make purchasing decisons based on more than pure economic evaluation, it's important to be clear on what the system economics look like, including some sensitivity analysis, should relevant factors change in the future.
For more information on the solar PV pilot, please contact Kelly Lund at Alberta Agriculture and Forestry at (780) 644-1197.