Kitsilano solar panels produce clean energy

On a day when dark clouds threaten to engulf the city in a shroud of grey, Karen Wristen is talking about solar panels. Despite the drab weather, Wristen, executive director of the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation, has reason to be cheerful.

A solar-heating system at the group's Kitsilano headquarters has reached the 500-kilowatt-hour milestone in the five months since it has been in operation.

"The cells probably aren't doing too much today," Wristen told the Straight by phone on November 21. "White clouds are okay; the cells do well with those, as they reflect light back down off the Earth's surface."

In February, she succeeded Ivan Bulic at the Kitsilano-based Society Promoting Environmental Conservation. After she took over, she oversaw the installation of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels on July 9 to the site on Maple Street.

It happened under friendlier skies and resulted in Vancouver's first solar grid-tie system. The result is less dependence on hydro power and a smaller environmental footprint.

The PV system is one of a number of clean-burning energy alternatives being touted in this city, and it produces "clean" electrical power from sunlight. The grid-tie system is made possible under a new net- metering program introduced last year by BC Hydro. Under the initiative, customers can produce their own power and sell any surplus generated to Hydro's grid.

Rob Baxter is the director of the year-old Vancouver Renewable Energy Co-op. He and two colleagues installed the grid-tie at SPEC, a 1.4-kilowatt system (kW) that will produce approximately 1.5 megawatt hours (mWh) annually and reduce greenhouse emissions by more than 800 kilograms per year.

"There are few photovoltaic installations in Vancouver. There's an off-grid one in Strathcona Park and an off-grid one on the Telus building downtown," Baxter told the Straight on November 21. "The third is our grid-tie on the SPEC building. We are currently working on proposals for one in Coquitlam and another in Langley."

Wristen estimated that the PV cells at SPEC offset about "one half of total energy used" in the building.

"These are huge savings, but we know we can get that even lower," Wristen said. Over the course of a year, she added, between a laptop computer (146 KWh), a printer (125 KWh), and the lights in the building (125 KWh), the panels play a significant role.

But despite the environmental factors, the economic climate has not yet caught up in B.C. The PV cells are still expensive to install-SPEC paid $17,000, and there was a lot of donated labour-and inexpensive hydro power makes them even less financially attractive.

"Until 18 months ago, BC Hydro didn't let you connect to the grid," Baxter said. "The problem now is the incentives to do that are not there. Power is so cheap and the cost of the solar panels is so high. In terms of solar panels, Alberta is ahead of B.C.; Texas is ahead of B.C., and so is Washington state."

On its Web site (vanrenewable .org/), VREC has lauded Washington state for passing bills SB 5101 and SB 5111 last spring. Earth Day founder Denis Hayes called it "some of the most important solar legislation in any American state legislature." The bills establish priorities for projects with renewable energy-including PV solar-and a feed-in credit to make it more attractive to use an alternative-energy hookup.

Wristen sees it as her task to keep getting SPEC "up to speed" on other ways forward.

"We're also looking at wind," she said. "These would be small wind generators for the site. We're calling them 'urbines'. We're currently researching funding for urbines."

Wristen noted that solar hot water has been a big success at the SPEC site. After 25 years, the same unit is in production, taking care of the hot-water needs of the building, "and the pump has only been replaced once".