Why Small is Good When it Comes to Alternative Energy

We installed a small (about 1 kilowatt per day) solar system a couple of years ago at “the farm” south of Lion’s Head. It’s been a learning experience, to say the least. As long as we get a few days of good, clear sun every week, our photovoltaic panels generate enough power to run our simple needs: an energy-efficient refrigerator, a few lights, a computer for a couple of hours a day, and the wireless device that gives us a phone and internet access. (We need to generate our own power, and rely on wireless telecommunication, because there are no power or phone lines down our road. We are totally “off grid” in both ways.)

But a few cloudy days in a row will soon cut into the power in our storage batteries. Ideally, they should not be allowed to fall below 50 percent. And in winter, with lots of cloudy days one after the other, our small system just doesn’t cut it. These are the things anybody considering generating their own electrical power for home, farm or business use from solar should know, or will soon find out the hard way. You should also, if at all possible, put your solar panels on a ground-anchored support system, rather than on the roof. Roof-mounted systems are much less efficient than ground-based which can be installed to track the sun, automatically or manually, and are much easier to keep clear. A single leaf on a solar panel can reduce its power output by 10 percent.

My point here there’s a steep learning curve associated with the buying, installation and operation of small alternate energy power systems. Our experience is with solar, but I’m sure it’s just as true for wind, and other types. You have to do your homework. And if you’re not very technically-minded, you can run into big problems. Then you’ve the problem of finding a skilled person to help you sort them out, and that hasn’t been easy in our neck of the woods.

But that being said, and in the midst of the current controversy surrounding large-scale wind energy and its possible adverse health effects, alternate, sustainable, “green” energy is clearly the way of the future. It makes a lot more sense than the risks associated with splitting atoms in a destabilized world, or burning coal and other fossil fuels in the life-threatening age of global warming and disastrous climate change. This simple fact of life appears to have been overlooked or given short shrift for too long by the modern age in its headlong rush into unsustainable energy technology: The sun and the wind have “powered” this planet for billions of years.

As we learn more about how to harness those sustainable energy sources for electrical generation and put that knowledge to use the technologies will improve. Hopefully, the learning curve won’t be quite so steep for those of us who aren’t technical geniuses. That’s because the direct involvement of people in the generation of the electricity they use should be a big part of the new energy age. Up at “the farm” I can tell you we have a renewed appreciation for the importance of conserving energy since we installed out small solar system. Surely, that’s one of the big advantages of small, home or business-based alternate energy systems, compared with what I’ll call big wind or big solar.

There has to be a limit to the number of big, wind-farm developments with dozens of towering turbines scattered around the rural Ontario landscape; and a limit, for that matter, to many hectares of solar arrays, if it ever comes to that here. I suspect at least some of the growing opposition to wind-farm development stems from a visceral fear people have about yet another big, unstoppable commercial-industrial entity moving in, getting too much power, and disrupting their lives and their communities. And the sense that big government, via Ontario’s Green Energy Act, has made it easy for that to happen, by taking away the power of the local community to control its own destiny, has rubbed salt into that wound.

There are good reasons why small is good when it comes to alternative energy. In fairness to Ontario’s present Liberal government, The Ontario Power Authority’s MicroFIT program is doing a lot to encourage the development of small (less than 10 kw) systems, especially solar. It is proving very popular. So far more than 3,000 projects have been built or applied for. And why not? People with panels mounted on their roofs or at ground level can sell the electricity they produce for up to 80 cents per kw/hr, or 64 cents, respectively, on a 20-year contract. That’s way more than the 9.9 cents consumers are paying for on-peak power.

The City of Owen Sound is looking at spending $171,000 to cash in on the program. First United Church recently got it’s $75,000 MicroFIT up and running.

All the power produced by MicroFIT projects goes into the provincial grid. There are currently no Ontario or federal government subsidies or incentives for people to build small, off-grid systems for their own use. There should be, because they too are making a valuable contribution to the growth and development of the new energy age.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2011.

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