Pros and cons fo rooftop solar panel systems

Fair play for rooftop solar

You’ve decided to invest in solar panels for your house.

Then, you run into reality. Solar only shines during the day (and during sunny weather). In order to have electricity when the sun goes down, you need extra equipment and a large battery bank. That can push the price of a solar installation up by as much as 60%.

There’s a better alternative to expensive battery backup. You could plug your solar panels into the grid. Essentially you are using the grid as a giant battery. Your meter tracks both how much electricity you generate and how much electricity you draw from the grid. This is called “net metering.” And this giant battery needs no maintenance on your side and is essentially available free of charge.

Historically, governments and utilities were not interested in investing in solar electricity themselves. It was untried and too expensive. Instead, as a sustainable gesture, they encouraged wealthy homeowners to try solar. There were government and utility incentives for spending your own money doing the right thing for the planet. That was fine, as long as there weren't that many houses with solar. However, the pace of residential solar is accelerating. B.C. is expected to generate 62 GWh through net metering in 2024 and 1,600 GWh by 2048.

Net metering can be done in a number of ways. In B.C. utilities offer a straight one for one—for every kilowatt hour of electricity you contribute, you can pull a kilowatt hour of electricity off the grid. However, that plan may need to be tweaked in the near future. Sometimes net metering policies are viewed through a partisan lens—utilities are evil for changing anything about net metering and homeowners and solar installers are the good guys (saving the planet) and deserve incentives from the utility. It’s more complicated than that.

There are two problems with the net metering model. The first is the model doesn’t take into account the fact the value of electricity changes drastically during the day. Unfortunately, sunset hits about the time that people start their peak use—turning up the heat, cooking dinner, starting a load of laundry. The daytime electricity you contribute is worth one price and the electricity you take from the grid at 5 p.m. is much more expensive.

The second problem with current net metering is the cost of maintenance for the utility. If you are a net metering customer with a well-designed system, there will probably be times where you produce so much energy you don’t owe the utility for any electricity at all. The problem is there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes. The utility has to make the rounds of all the transmission and distribution lines and trim all the trees. The utility has to replace aging substations, transmission and distribution equipment. Normally utilities bundle these costs into the charge for kilowatt hours, collecting enough money to cover these costs (and make a profit). When you use zero electricity under net metering, you are contributing zero money to grid maintenance.

There’s a conundrum here. The type of people who put solar on their roofs are relatively wealthy. They have larger houses and according to B.C. Hydro their electricity bill is 40% higher than an average customer.

When they generate enough electricity to zero out the charge on the electric bill, they aren’t contributing to utility maintenance. That invariably raises rates for everyone else. It pushes more people to install solar on their house, which results in less money for maintenance and then the utility raises prices on non-solar customers.

It’s estimated that two-thirds of the rate rises in California are due to rooftop solar. The current situation in B.C. isn’t dire, but with the expected growth, net metering will be an issue.

In March 2023, B.C. Hydro held a workshop on net metering rate design and intends to file a rate application addressing “under-recovery of costs” caused by net metering.

Let’s hope the outcome supports future renewable installations and ensures that everyone pays a fair share of utility costs.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


The electrical grid: It’s five p.m. somewhere

Reducing peak demand

When you plug something in, you just want it to work.

You don’t think about the fact that it is 5 p.m. and everyone is turning things on and plugging things in—lights, ovens, stoves, washing machines etc. You don’t need to worry about it because the utility does.

How does the utility make sure there is enough electricity? It separates demand into “baseload”—the normal, flat, day to day electrical demand—and a fluctuating demand, called “peak” demand.

If fluctuating demand sounds scary, keep in mind the electrical grid has always had fluctuating demand and used a fluctuating supply to meet it. In a cool climate, like British Columbia, the largest increase in load comes at the end of the workday, Monday through Friday.

People leave work around 5 p.m. and drive home. Once they get home, they make dinner, wash clothes and run dishwashers. They may also reach for the thermostat, setting the air conditioning to lower temperature during the summer or turning up the heat during the winter.

It’s not just our workday that drives demand. There are also our hobbies.

“TV pickup” is a great example of variable demand. In the U.K., entire populations would watch television shows, then take a break at commercial intermissions to turn on electric kettles to make tea. The largest TV pickup happened July 4, 1990, just after the end of a penalty shootout during the FIFA World Cup, causing a sudden 2,800-megawatt demand (this is the equivalent of 1.12 million kettles).

The National Grid Energy Balancing Team actually monitors television schedules, trying to anticipate the “tea events”.

Utilities could respond to these rises by building more capacity—more hydro dams or more natural gas “peaker” plants that could be called into service on short notice. However, having plants that are idle 90% of the time is very expensive. Luckily, there are other ways of addressing variable demand. For instance, the utility could practice “demand side management,” where the utility signals users that there is a peak and users could reduce their electricity usage.

That can be done in two ways. The simplest way is to charge more for electricity during the peak load, so customers have direct incentives to reduce peak electricity use. Commercial and industrial customers already have pricing that includes a higher charge for periods when they use the most electricity, called a “demand charge.”

This year (2024), B.C. Hydro will offer optional “time-of-use” pricing to residential customers. This new rate will provide an incentive to use electricity during off-peak times, from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. and a surcharge for electricity used during the peak times, from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

How would you shift your habits to benefit from time-of-use pricing? Rather than start your dishwasher after dinner, you could use the four-hour delay feature so it goes on after 11 p.m. You could make sure your electric vehicle (EV) is charging during the off-peak hours, rather than when you plug it in after work. You could also run washing machine and dryer in the morning or at midday on the weekends.

The second way utilities can do demand side management is by direct communication between the utility and smart appliances. For example, during a peak event, you could help by turning down the heat by 4 C. However, the utility can get the same savings from turning down the heat for 100 customers by 0.04 C—a difference nobody would notice.

Fortis actually has a program, its Power Hours Rewards program, for people with smart thermostats and electric vehicles. People who enroll get a text message for each Power Hour event and can opt out by texting back or just by adjusting the temperature manually. Customers are paid to enroll and get seasonal bonus if they support 80% of the Power Hours.

B.C. Hydro has a more extensive program called “Peak Rewards,’’ which supports central air conditioners, electric baseboard heat and electric vehicles. Like the Fortis BC program, Peak Reward customers can opt out of peak events by readjusting their thermostats or unplugging and replugging in their electric vehicle.

If your demand response program is big enough you might completely eliminate the need for a new power plant. By communicating and rearranging electricity use you have a virtual power plant, displacing fossil fuels.

The newest and largest virtual power plant is Renew Home, a merger of Google Nest Renew and OhmConnect. OhmConnect has 226,000 homes on its platform in California, Texas, and New York.

In California and Texas, both hot climates, peak demand comes early in the afternoon when air conditioners are struggling to keep buildings cool. One of the tricks Renew Home can use is “pre-cooling”—turning on air conditioners before the peak so the house is a comfortable temperature when you get home.

Next time you walk into the house and switch on the lights, know you are a “peak” event. You can be the peak or you can be the virtual power plant.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

Brewing beer in an environmentally sustainable way

Sustainable beer

Three years ago, Alexis Esseltine and Timothy Scoon purchased the Okanagan’s oldest craft brewery, Tin Whistle, founded in 1995.

Since they took over, they have worked hard to make the business more sustainable. That includes both zero waste and lowering their carbon footprint.

Alexis started working in sustainability gradually, investigating paper sourcing while working in print media. To add credentials to her experience, she obtained a masters degree in green business from York University, an experience she describes as a tug-of-war between environmental sciences and the business school. That tug-of-war powers Tin Whistle today. Alexis describes herself as the “environmentalist” balancing her husband, the “capitalist”.

The driver behind Tin Whistle’s environmental philosophy is climate change, which has a direct impact on brewing beer. Beer brewing is seasonal, so summer water restrictions can throttle beer brewing in high season. Dry weather causes a shortage of hops and grains, but it also affects the quality—the grains have increased protein and the hops lack the characteristic bitter flavor. Recurrent summer wildfires and the 2021 Vancouver-to-Okanagan washouts meant distribution had to take different, longer routes. That increased both costs and carbon emissions.

Breweries across B.C. are working on pieces of the sustainability puzzle. Dogwood Brewing is certified organic. Persephone Brewing Company in Gibsons is a Certified B organization. Crannóg Ales, in addition to being organic, carries out water reclamation. There are “local” breweries like Whistle Buoy Brewing and Tofino Brewing Company which buy grains and hops from local farmers. Taking this to an extreme, there are “farm” breweries' such as Abandoned Rail Brewing and Barnside Brewing, which grow their own barley and hops on site. Tin Whistle focuses on reducing carbon and being zero waste.

Zero waste isn't a well defined term but for Tin Whistle it means 100% of its output is recycled, reused or repurposed, leaving nothing to go to the landfill.

One of the first things Alexis did was carry out a waste audit. In particular, making beer generates a large amount of spent grain, which is delivered to a local farmer to use as feed for pigs and cows.

That attention extends even to the little things. Single-use plastic six-pack rings have been replaced in the industry by PakTech, a reusable product. Tin Whistle accepts PakTechs, from any source, offering a 25-cent credit for each ring.

“We see this as a way to engage our customers in environmental action” says Alexis.

There’s currently no carbon neutral/low carbon certification process for breweries. So what does carbon neutral mean for the Tin Whistle?

First. it means that Tin Whistle is always working to reduce its carbon emissions. Alexis says reducing carbon emission never goes away.

“You are continually working on it,” she says.

At the end of the year, Tin Whistle calculates its carbon footprint and then purchases certified carbon offsets through Less/Bullfrog Power. Alexis chooses offsets that are local to B.C., such as the Abbotsford composting facility.

Any business working on sustainability has to worry about when to replace equipment. Newer equipment is much more energy efficient than older models. However, replacing equipment is expensive and has to be done judiciously. In 2021 Tin Whistle had an engineer come in and evaluate the business, recommending replacement equipment and estimating costs and money savings.

In particular, Tin Whistle has an aging chiller cooling the keg room, which Alexis suspected was using up too much electricity. She reached out to David Kassian at the City of Penticton. As a pilot project, using B.C. Local Government Climate Action funds, David purchased a motor logger— an inexpensive device that he installed on the equipment. The motor logger records how the equipment runs—if it is on too much of the time or if it is turning on and off too rapidly. Alexis will share this data with an engineer and decide whether to repair or replace the refrigerator.

As for what she knows that she can pass on to businesses beginning their path to sustainability, Alexis says, “Just get started.”

“Measure first. You can't manage what you don't measure. Read your utility bills. Dump your garbage out. Get numbers. From there you can plan how to reduce. Don't go at it alone either- engage with competitors, your municipality, your local post-secondary institution. They all have knowledge and love to share it,” she says.

“Lastly, don't let perfection get in the way of progress. Get started. Get on the path. The world needs us to act.”

If you want to conduct a waste audit for your business, you can find instructions on the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen website.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


Deep energy retrofit can reduce your home’s energy use by 50%.

Deep energy retrofits

You swapped out your incandescent lightbulbs for LEDs. You replaced your furnace and your air conditioning unit with a high performance heat pump. You’ve caulked for leaks around windows and doors. You got rid of the harvest gold beer fridge in the garage.

All of these steps were important and they quickly reduced your carbon footprint. They have short payback periods, and will continue to save you money in the years to come.

What’s the next step? Your house is still using a lot of electricity. Why? The house leaks air and has 1980-era insulation. You need a “deep energy retrofit.” A deep energy retrofit is designed to reduce your home’s energy use by at least 50%. Beyond the cash savings, a deep energy retrofit makes your home more comfortable (no more hot and cold spots) and prepares you to withstand extreme weather events, such as heat domes and unusual cold spells.

Deep retrofits come with several challenges. Compared to the quick wins described above, they are big projects. They are expensive. They aren’t common (yet), so finding a contractor with experience in deep energy retrofits can be hard and contractors are often averse to doing new projects or doing things in a new way.

Deep energy retrofits include building shell improvements that provide more insulation for the roof, walls and basement or crawl space. The new shell will be carefully sealed against leaks, controlling the air exchange rate. Your house was probably built with 2x4 or 2x6 wooden studs. That means that both the outside and the interior are in direct contact with the stud. During the winter, the stud becomes a “thermal bridge”, transmitting the cold from outside. You can see this in infrared photos—cold studs and warm surrounding walls. A deep energy retrofit provides continuous insulation to avoid thermal bridging.

Windows and doors are the weak link in your house’s energy. You can’t do without them but they are much more poorly insulated than typical walls and they can leak heat. During a deep energy retrofit windows and doors are replaced. It may also involve rejigging the HVAC system, controlling ventilation and recovering heat.

Finally, you may want to replace other appliances, such as the washer, dryer or stove with energy efficient models. A general rule of thumb is a deep energy retrofit brings your house up to R-20 basement walls, R-40 for the above-grade walls, R-60 roofs, and U-0.20 windows. You can see several different deep energy retrofit case studies at retrofitcanada.com/case-studies

There’s been a trend to carry out deep retrofits using factory-built structural insulated panels (SIPs). These panels act like an extra exterior “wall”, wrapping the building with a layer of high R value insulation. The house is carefully measured and walls (with windows built in) are built to specification at the factory. The pieces come directly from the factory and are lifted into place by a crane. The advantage is that construction is quicker, which could save money, and there’s less disruption to the occupants.

If you don’t have the money to carry out a complete retrofit in one go, you can stage the retrofit—take it step by step. However, this requires careful planning. You don’t want to undo or take apart previous work.

For example, if you install a heat pump before you re-insulate, the house will require a bigger and more expensive heat pump. Improving insulation and airtightness in your walls will add several inches to the thickness of the wall. High energy efficient windows are often thicker than standard double pane windows. To accommodate the additional depth, you probably want to install insulation and new windows simultaneously.

Every deep retrofit should start with an energy audit by a certified energy advisor. In B.C. you can find a local certified energy advisor at betterhomesbc.ca/ea/ (residents of Penticton should get this done for $35 through the HELP loan program).

Many deep retrofit projects are supported by low-interest loans, rebates and tax deductions. A good place to start is betterhomesbc.ca/. There is also a list of federal loans and tax deductions collected by Green Communities Canada at deepenergyretrofits.ca/rebates-incentives/.

What is the biggest hurdle to deep energy retrofits? The temptation to remodel. It is a slippery slope. Putting in new attic insulation? The kitchen really needs to be updated. Replacing windows? It would be great to have a front porch. So plan your deep retrofit. Split it into stages if you need to and don’t add the renovations.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

More Sustainability Spotlight articles

About the Author

Kristy Dyer has worked in the sustainability field for more than 10 years, including work with solar energy in New Mexico and cleantech in Silicon Valley. After she moved to the Okanagan, she ran a small business, Teaspoon Energy, doing energy audits of large houses. Most recently, she worked for a B.C. business doing carbon footprints for tourism organizations.

She has written about sustainability since 2012. You can find her columns archived at TeaspoonEnergy.blogspot.com.

Dyer has a background in physics and astronomy, and has occasionally been caught trying to impersonate an engineer.

A long-time member of First Things First, Penticton’s local climate change group, whose goals are to educate and lobby for solutions to the climate crisis, Dyer is honoured to live, work and play in the unceded, ancestral and traditional territory of the Syilx Okanagan Nation.

You can contact her at [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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