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Solar panels slow to catch on in Manitoba

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Perhaps because Manitoba has so much hydro electricity, it has been among the slowest to adopt the use of solar panels.

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Perhaps because Manitoba has so much hydro electricity, it has been among the slowest to adopt the use of solar panels.

STEPHEN Smith's wife is not totally in love with the solar panels he installed on the outside of their home, but she's tolerating them.

"It took some getting used to," said Smith of the large eye-catching panels mounted on the outside of his house. "But she likes them now."

About eight months ago Smith installed a solar water heating system and a photovoltaic (PV) solar panel on the outside of his house.

He is amongst a small but growing minority of Manitobans who are using solar technologies to power their appliances, heat their water and offset their utility needs-- often consuming less energy and saving more money.

But in a province as notorious for its water as it is for sunlight, the abundance of hydro-power means that Manitobans have some of the lowest electricity rates in North America-- providing scant incentive for homeowners to seek out alternative energy sources.

And according to one of North America's largest distributors and manufacturers of solar energy products, Manitoba is "dead last" when it comes to encouraging the adoption of solar power.

Tim Yusishen's Winnipeg-based company, Solar Solutions, has been in the solar power business for 21 years and during that time, the company has done almost all of its business outside of the province.

Yusishen thinks Manitoba has fallen behind the rest of Canada, the United States and Mexico in encouraging the solar market.

He wants the province to implement something along the lines of Ontario's feed-in-tariff program which rewards customers for making the investment in solar.

Ontario pays customers up to 80 cents per kilowatt hour for a rooftop-mounted solar panel which feeds electricity back into Ontario's power grid.

"We were hoping Manitoba Hydro would do something like that," said Yusishen.

Manitobans who generate more power than they are using on their property can also feed power back to the grid-- but at nowhere near the rate that Ontario customers receive.

"We essentially reverse the meter," said Glenn Schneider of Manitoba Hydro. "Basically you're paid the same rate that you pay for your electricity."

And that rate is only about six and a half cents per kilowatt hour-- a fraction of what Ontario pays.

Schneider says that so far, the substantial initial investment that solar power requires means that Manitobans have not been clamouring for solar incentive programs.

But Hydro does offer incentives on another lesser known solar application: solar water heating.

Solar heating directs the sun's energy through a heat exchanger to heat household water.

It isn't a replacement for your regular gas or electricity powered heater, instead it piggy-backs on the existing system, allowing the homeowner to use solar-heated water reserves before triggering the old heater.

And Manitobans like Stephen Smith who install a solar water heating system can qualify for a $7,500 loan from Manitoba Hydro to assist with the initial investment-- an amount that can be gobbled up quickly with the installation of $8,500 two-panel unit.

Justin Rodger of NRG Management, a Winnipeg-based distributor of solar technology thinks that consumers reluctant to adopt solar technologies are thinking too short term.

Rodger says that customers often balk at the initial investment for a solar water heating kit-- even if that kit will save them money in the long term.

"Trying to tell consumers that they should spend $8,000 to put in a secondary water heating system is (challenging)," said Rodger.

More often than not people making the calculation opt for the cheaper $1,200 electric tank, even if they might have to replace it five or six times over the life span of a single solar water heater.

The savings that are possible with solar water heating are substantial says Rodger, with an average of 25 per cent of household utility bills cut in half.

"All we need is people who are willing to have a longer perspective on investment, (people) willing to drop down money today, instead of buying a new tank every five years," said Rodger.

Stephen Smith took the long term view in his decision to install solar panels on his home, but having incentives like the provincial

Stephen Smith was very happy with his decision to install solar panels on his home and he wishes he could install more.

But beyond a lack of political will or the cheap and easy availability hydro power, there is another more damning hindrance to Smith's desire to expand his solar power usage: the orientation of his house.

A southerly-facing roof or wall is the chief requirement of any solar unit and with his roof on an east-west slope, Smith can't add more panels.

And even with all the rebates, loans and incentives in the world-- you can't change where the sun sets.

Incentives and credits

- Manitoba's Green Energy Equipment Tax Credit: Homeowners who install a solar thermal energy system could be eligible for a 10 per cent tax credit on their capital costs.

- Manitoba Hydro's Residential Earth Power Loan: If you're installing a solar water heating system you could be eligible to borrow up to $7,500 per residence.

Install these yourself

- $30: 1.8-watt solar panels can maintain your vehicle batteries, including cars, SUVs, and ATVs.

- $100: 12- or 15-watt solar panels can directly power or charge your cell phone, iPod or digital camera.

- $250: 30-watt solar panels can produce 8.85 amps of power per day, enough to charge up a battery bank and run appliances.

- $400: 60-watt solar panels can produce 15.5 amps of power per day. Two of them would provide backup power for a summer cottage.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 18, 2011 J16

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