Going Solar

Andy Shadrack

It has been a very long haul since we took the plunge last June and paid for our solar equipment, manufactured in China, to be transported across the US border to our home in Kaslo, BC. Free trade has really destroyed our own manufacturing economy, but that is a whole other conversation. Sometime on December 5, electricity from six of the eight solar panels that are now hooked up to our batteries, began feeding energy to our fridge, and to some of the circuits in our house. We have a gizmo in the kitchen that tells us that we burn 130 watts when the fridge is running and about 17 watts when it is not.

The capacity of our solar panels is 300 watts each, so that is 2,400 watts for eight panels. We have not worked out the capacity of our batteries, but I can tell you that one day in December our batteries, (sealed silicon salt), went from a quarter charged to fully charged in approximately three hours of winter sunlight. I have determined that when the fridge is on, I think we drain 4.6 amps from our batteries. We are still waiting for one more set of cables to hook up the last two panels, and for the electrical inspector to approve the electrician’s work. Then FortisBC can move the meter base from our house to the solar shed on the lot line and hook the whole system in so we can net meter.

The electrician has explained that we cannot wire the electric stove, and possibly the hot water heater, into our system, as it would be too much for the inverter. However, we hope to hook in the rest of the household circuits, and hopefully, try with the hot water heater as well.

The way I want the system to work is that our house will draw down the batteries, which in turn will be re-charged from the solar panels, only drawing from the grid when more power is being consumed than created. I am hoping we can restrict drawing power off the grid to night time to help shave the usual consumption peak loads. We are even planning to buy a solar barbecue to lessen use of the stove, and will consider other ways to cook our food that does not include the stove.

The electrician has a concern that there will be times when the volume of power required will exceed what the inverter and storage batteries can handle, hence the debate over whether to plug the hot water heater into the system. At some point my partner, Gail, and I will have to look at the manuals to make sure we understand how all the components work. Fortunately, a next-door neighbour recently cut down an old fir, which will now allow us to maximize winter sunlight. The experiment to see how much household electricity we can generate on our own lot in Kaslo has begun. 

The Cost
This experiment is not for the faint hearted financially, but the costs below are better than the $70,000 we were originally quoted a decade ago:

Solar Equipment  $11,651.1
Canadian Tax $583.00
Electrician $4,461.78
Building and Equipment Supplies  $2,791.02
Solar Equipment Shed Labour $1,245
Trenching $929.25

Total = $21,661.15

We are moving our meter base from the house to the back of the lot, hence $929.25 for trenching, because my spouse has a mild sensitivity to electricity, which is part of a much larger Multiple-Chemical Sensitivity illness. That said, my spouse and I estimate that we have now spent in excess of $26,000 since 2007, retrofitting our house so we would consume less electricity energy from the grid. When I suggest to Gail that we will not see a financial payback from this investment in our lifetime (I am 64 and my spouse 57), she retorts that this was never about financial payback, but about seeing how much smaller a footprint we could create.

Conserving Energy – It’s for the Salmon
If you take into account the amount of energy that was used to have our solar equipment made and transported, this is where I get angry about Free Trade. And we have not even begun to talk about the ecological destruction that took place to extract the resources that went in to making our solar equipment. For example, the steel on which the panels are mounted, the wood and concrete used to house the solar equipment, etc. I am not sure about the ecological balance either.

However, if everybody in BC cut their consumption of household energy in half, as Gail and I gradually did between 2006 and 2012, then we could bolster our argument against the construction of the Site C dam. Gail and I live in the “belly of the beast”, in that 44% of the electricity generated in BC comes out of the Kootenays via, primarily, the Columbia River Treaty hydro dams.  We have lived with that knowledge since we first met at Notre Dame University in Nelson in the 1970’s.

In October, we attended the fourth cross-border conference on the Columbia River Basin sponsored by the Columbia Basin Trust and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council in Spokane, Washington. It is very clear that there are many individuals, families and organizations who want to restore the Columbia River ecosystem, from the headwaters to the mouth of the river in Oregon.

My friend and colleague, Bill Green, has spent twenty years of his working life dedicated to collaborating with First Nations trying to restore the salmon run that our building of the hydro-electric dams destroyed on the Kootenay-Columbia Rivers. We have a renewed run crossing the border at Osoyoos, BC and have technically determined that it is feasible to bring salmon across the border on the main stem of the Columbia and Kootenay Rivers. A goal of 2030 has been set to establish this new run – less than a century since salmon last went up the Slocan River in BC. However, we still do not know whether there are enough nutrients in the river system to sustain a salmon run.

That is what the energy self-sufficiency goal that Gail and I have set is all about: creating space for salmon to come up the Columbia River again. In the big scheme of things, reducing our personal consumption by 2,105 kWh each year is very minuscule. But a local electrician tells me that he has five more homes waiting to have solar systems installed. Likewise, at least three of our neighbours want to are observing how our system works, before they take the plunge. I am aware of fifty solar systems being installed over the last three years in North Kootenay Lake, Lardeau and Duncan Valleys, BC.

As Malcom Gladwell points out in The Tipping Point, “little things can make a big difference”. Think about the next federal election and who we are going to support and why, and whether that candidate’s values and vision include socio-economic equity and justice for fish and all the other species with which we share our the planet.

We can make a difference in the kind of economy and society we build, and we do that every day in the financial choices we make.


Andy Shadrack lives in Kaslo, BC and has been an active member of the Green Party since 1993.

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