Solar should play a role in B.C.'s renewable energy future

Shedding light on solar

When we describe the weather in B.C., we have a tendency to think of rain in Vancouver.

However, much of the dry Interior gets ample amounts of sunlight year round. Large swaths of the southern Interior receive more sunlight than Germany, where solar provides 67 gigawatts of power, more than 12% of Germany’s total electricity.

Closer to home, B.C. participates in an energy market that includes Washington and Oregon. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), these states—with similar climate (a dry side and a wet side)—have already moved ahead with more than 1.9 gigawatts of current and planned utility scale solar. Today, B.C. sells more energy than it purchases in the market. But with growing demand for electricity, B.C. could find itself in the position of becoming a net importer of U.S. energy.

Over the last 10 years, both prices and technology have changed drastically for utility scale solar. The cost of building utility scale solar has dropped by 84% to $0.89 per watt of solar power. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), solar with battery storage is now $1.67 per watt. New technology in solar panels, such as thin-film and bifacial panels, collect a wider spectrum of radiation allowing panels to absorb more energy from the sun and enabling electricity generation on even cloudy days.

The other technological improvement is the introduction of trackers. Today 90% of utility-scale solar plants are being built with trackers. When solar is installed on the south-facing side of a roof, it generates maximum power at noon when the panel directly faces the sun. Solar installed with a tracker can rotate to catch sunrise and then follow the sun throughout the day. Single axis trackers can increase the efficiency of the solar array by as much as 20%.

It is not enough, however, to produce sufficient electricity. You also have to deliver it during the times it is needed. Solar energy peaks during the middle of the day, which is a good match to electricity consumption for commercial enterprises.

However, residential electricity use peaks at the end of the work day (4 p.m. to 7 p.m.) as people come home from work and cook, wash dishes and do laundry. Solar installations can include battery storage, which allows the installation to store solar energy onsite and release it to match the residential need.

A solar plus storage installation can save excess electricity produced at noon and then deliver it for the evening surge. Advances in battery technology make it possible not only to match a later peak but also supplement electricity overnight or on cloudy days.

It is well known that creating a resilient electrical grid with variable renewable sources requires diversity—diversity in technology and geographical diversity. Geographical diversity is obtained by spreading renewable sources over a wide area. Technical diversity can be obtained by investing in a mix of solar and wind, backed in B.C. by hydro power.

A prime example of complementarity between solar and hydro is the 2023 drought. During the summer, due to lack of rain, most of B.C.’s water basins were in level four or level five drought. When water is low B.C. Hydro cannot draw power from its smaller dams and must place more reliance on its larger assets.

Solar, however, produces peak electricity during those hot dry months, relieving BC Hydro’s systems of the need to draw down their limited reservoirs. Adding a substantial amount of solar to the provincial electrical grid would make B.C. more resilient in climate-change driven weather conditions.

A study by Johannes Schmidt in Brazil, which like B.C. uses hydro as its main source of electricity, found grid stability was maximized at “optimal mix of around 37% of PV, 9% of wind, and 50% of hydropower generation.”

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

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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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