On a Kitsilano roof, Karen Wristen pointed upward and traced the sun's rays down from the clear blue sky to a large, thin sheet of silicon.
"The panels produce power by collecting sunlight on the surface," Wristen told the Georgia Straight, standing beside one of eight photovoltaic solar panels on the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation's building. "Particles in the sunlight called photons strike the dark black silicon surface and drive off electrons."
The electrons, she continued, are then captured by aluminum wires in the panels, fed into an electrical inverter, and converted into the alternating current that is used to power homes and offices.
Wristen, the executive director of SPEC, estimated that anywhere from one-third to one-half of the building's electricity comes from its solar panels.
When Al Gore's 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth took the concept of climate change mainstream, the solar panel became an icon for the future of clean energy. But in Vancouver, with winter fast approaching and the sky now dark before most people leave work for the day, some wonder whether the technology is a good fit.
According to a Natural Resources Canada Web site, Vancouver is among Canadian cities with the lowest potential for producing solar power.
"The problem with Vancouver is that there is not enough sun," said John S. MacDonald, chair and chief executive officer of Day4 Energy, which manufactures solar panels in Burnaby. "Solar energy works everywhere, to a greater or lesser extent. But, basically, the amount of sunlight that is available is a big factor in the economic calculation."
The SPEC building's solar-power-production numbers support MacDonald's argument. During Vancouver's brightest months, May to July, the building's panels produce an average of 175.3 kilowatt-hours of electricity a month. But in November and December they generate an average of only 51.3 kilowatt-hours per month.
According to Wristen, the SPEC building's eight panels plus the inverter cost a total of $18,000. She estimated that it would take 168 years to make good on the investment, or six times the productive life of the panels.
"There are days, clearly, in Vancouver's winter where you are not getting much of anything out of the panels," Wristen conceded.
But she noted that as long as the clouds are light-toned, enough of the sun's photons reach the panels to generate electricity.
"The country that has spent the most money encouraging solar is Germany," Wristen said. "And they have less sunlight than we do."
Indeed, MacDonald said that Day4 Energy doesn't worry about the weak market for solar panels in Vancouver, because it has a very strong market in Europe.
"Canada is an energy-rich country," explained MacDonald, who cofounded the Vancouver-based space-technology company MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates. "Germany, France, Italy, Spain—they are all energy-poor”¦and so there is a huge incentive in those countries to get the cost of renewable energy down and to develop the potential of renewable energy."
MacDonald pointed out that the alternative-energy market in B.C. is already quite crowded: most of the province's electricity comes from hydroelectric dams, many areas are well-suited for wind energy, and forests devastated by the mountain pine beetle—itself a consequence of climate change-hold the potential to make B.C. a leader in biomass energy.
Rob Baxter is a cofounder of the Vancouver Renewable Energy Cooperative, which, among other things, installs solar panels throughout the Lower Mainland. Like MacDonald, he candidly told the Straight of the limitations of solar energy in B.C.
"It is not really our climate that is the issue here," Baxter said. "The problem is that we have some of the cheapest electricity in the world here in B.C., so the systems don't pay for themselves anytime soon."
Baxter said that many governments promote the independent production of solar power through feed-in tariffs. These are incentives that see electric utilities pay producers like homeowners and businesses above-market prices for energy produced from renewable sources.
According to Baxter, when such power producers sell solar energy into Germany's electric grid, they receive approximately 70 cents per kilowatt-hour. In Ontario, the incentive is 42 cents, while in B.C. it's only 5.4 cents.
Jake Jacobs, spokesperson for B.C.'s Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, told the Straight that the province has no plans to offer above-market rates for solar power.
He noted that feed-in tariffs can make a lot of sense in jurisdictions like Ontario and Germany, where much of the electricity is produced by burning fossil fuels. But in places like B.C., where 90 percent of power comes from hydroelectric facilities, above-market prices for solar power are not justified, Jacobs said.
For now, even solar-power users like Wristen are telling Vancouver residents to hold off on making the switch.
"The message I give to people all of the time is to wait for it," Wristen said. "But keep in touch, because the technology is changing fast and the cost could change quite dramatically in the very near future."