A southern Manitoba dairy farmer is about to lay claim to having the largest solar-energy system in the province, but his reign as solar champ will be short-lived.
As early as next month, Hans Gorter’s new 175-kilowatt, solar photovoltaic (PV) system near Otterburne will be surpassed by a 200-kilowatt system being installed at the Tallpine Lodges in West Hawk Lake.
But the president of the Winnipeg-based company which is installing both systems — Sycamore Energy Inc.’s Solar Manitoba — said Tallpine Lodge’s pending record should stand for awhile.
Justin Phillips noted the maximum rebate available to buyers under Manitoba Hydro’s Power Smart Solar Energy Program is $200,000 for a system that produces 200 kilowatts of power ($1,000 per kilowatt).
"You may see some bigger systems in the future, but right now under the (current) rebate program it’s unlikely you’re going to see much more than 200-kilowatt systems (being installed)," he added.
He said Gorter’s new system, which could be feeding power to Manitoba Hydro’s grid as early as the end of next week, cost about $500,000. A $175,000 rebate from Manitoba Hydro reduced his cost to about $325,000.
The system includes 540 ground-mounted, solar panels arranged in three long rows in a field next to Gorter’s barn. Phillips estimates the entire installation takes up between 1,486 and 1,579 square metres (16,000 to 17,000 square feet) of space.
Over the course of the year, it will produce enough electricity for Manitoba Hydro’s grid, and enough credits for Gorter to offset all of his farm’s hydro bills.
Phillips said one of the advantages farmers have over most urban solar-energy customers is they usually have enough land to accommodate a large installation. Most urban systems have to be mounted on the roof of homes or buildings, which limits how big they can be. That’s why the bulk of Solar Manitoba’s installations so far have been on farms. Phillips said the company has completed between 20 and 25 new installations since the two-year program was introduced in April of last year, with another 75 to 80 in various stages of development.
He admitted that even he is surprised at how strong the demand for solar energy systems has become.
"I knew we were going to be busy, but I never thought it was going to be like this. Never in a million years."
He attributed that growing popularity to the attractive rebates Manitoba Hydro offers — he says they’re the most generous in Canada — and the prospect of substantial hydro rate increases in the coming years.
Manitoba Hydro has asked the Public Utilities Board for a 7.9 per cent rate hike in each of the next four years. The board recently approved an interim increase of 3.36 per cent, and is expected to rule on the original application later this year.
Scott Powell, Manitoba Hydro’s director of corporate communications, said that as of Thursday, 406 applications have been received under the program, and 364 have been approved. Of those, 88 installations have been completed and a total of $1,083,415 in rebates have been paid out thus far.
Powell also confirmed that Gorter’s system is the largest installation so far in the province. Previously, the largest was a 70-kilowatt system installed earlier this year on a farm near Rivers.
Powell said the solar energy program is set to expire in April of next year, and interested Manitobans have until April 18 to submit their applications. He said the decision on whether to extend the program beyond next April will likely be made by Efficiency Manitoba, the new Crown corporation the provincial government is creating to take over the energy-saving programs now carried out by Hydro.
Gorter admitted the rebate and rising hydro rates were two reasons he decided to install a solar-energy system on his farm. Concern for the environment was another.
"We’re in the food production business, and sustainability and doing it the right way and reducing our (environmental) footprint is important to us."
Phillips said if hydro rates rise by four per cent a year for the foreseeable future, Gorter’s new system should pay for itself within 10 to 12 years.
Gorter, who emigrated from the Netherlands in 1987, said he started seriously thinking about going solar after attending a Manitoba Hydro/Syracuse Energy seminar at last winter’s Royal Manitoba Winter Fair in Brandon. A March trip to Europe with his wife further convinced him it was the right thing to do.
"We have a lot of family in Europe that switched to solar. So we started talking about it and did the math and it all came together pretty quick."
He and his wife have about 130 dairy cows on their farm, which is called Optimist Holsteins. They’re the first ones in their area to install a solar-energy system, but he figures they won’t be the last.
"I have almost every day phone calls from neighbours who would like to have a look (at his system) and are debating it," he said. "I think if this system does what it has promised... the rest of the world will take notice."