Rae-Anne Wadey of Great Canadian Solar working on the Eastgate Environnment Canada building in Edmonton. Photo by David Dodge, Green Energy Futures.

Solar power costs 11 cents per kilowatt hour, a few cents more than coal-fired power

By David Dodge and Duncan Kinney, Green Energy Futures 

Has solar power passed the tipping point? Is it ready to compete with traditional forms of generating electricity, like the coal-fired plants so common in Alberta?

When you pass from one geologic age to another there is very little fanfare. There is no commemorative ceremony and no plaque. When you’re talking millions of years you’re not going sweat the exact year the Neolithic age began.

Matt Simard of Great Canadian Solar working on the Eastgate Environment Canada Project for Great Canadian Solar. Photo: David Dodge.

But it was on the roof of a new office building, hardhat on my head and camera around my neck that I had a moment of clarity. I was able to step back and realize that we as humans had entered the solar power age.

I was surrounded by a sea of solar power panels, 624 to be exact, part of a 153-kilowatt system on the Eastgate office building in Edmonton. And it was in conversation with Clifton Lofthaug, the principal of Great Canadian Solar and the installer on the project.

It was the revelation that even here in Alberta, solar power is cost-competitive with dirtier, conventional forms of coal and natural gas-fired electricity.

Eleven cents a kilowatt hour. That’s the cost to produce the electricity coming out of those dense, inscrutable panels of silicon. That’s also roughly the retail cost of electricity here in Alberta.

Soon, it won’t make sense to not have solar power on your house, on your office or on any spare building that faces south.

It’s simple math. The cost of electricity is going up while the cost of solar power is going down. Way down. Thirty-five years ago a watt of solar photovoltaic power cost $75. Now it costs $0.75.

And according to  Swanson’s Law, the more solar power panels we make, the cheaper they get.

Solar power revolution starts now

It’s not just Eastgate. That project is small fry. Look at this 250 megawatt project in California that is also producing power at rates that can compete with conventional electric generators.

Clifton Lofthaug of Great Canadian Solar working on the Environment Canada Eastgate Project. Photo: David Dodge.

Engineer and solar power expert Gordon Howell confirms solar’s rise: “It’s is indeed (growing), oh my goodness it’s amazing how much work I have this year even compared to last year which is a record compared to the year before.”

In Alberta, the solar industry has grown 78 per cent per year, for the last three years according to the statistics from the Alberta Government. Across Canada solar power has grown 115 per cent per year for 10 years

According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance analysis 36.7 gigawatts of new solar power PV will be added world-wide in 2013. This will outstrip new wind power projects making this the first year that solar will overtake wind.

Jenny Chase, a clean energy policy analyst for Bloomberg New Energy Finance says the solar power market will be 16 times larger and 30 to 40 per cent cheaper than it is today by 2030 in a recently posted interview from Bloomberg’s Global Renewable Energy Market Outlook.

The smart money is on solar power and everyone knows it.

Solar power Leeding the way

The motivation for putting solar power on Eastgate came from the developer of the project. He was looking for LEED gold status (LEED explained).

Shafraaz Kaba is the architect for the project. While he originally looked at an natural gas co-generation project in order to get the points needed for the LEED gold certification when he looked at the dollars and cents solar power was the winner. Co-generation was an order of magnitude more expensive.

“You want something that has a low maintenance aspect. You want to generate power without creating complexity for your clients so solar is a really good way to do that,” says Kaba.

When it comes to non-residential commercial buildings that are looking for LEED status or even just a way to reduce their electricity bills solar power systems are increasingly a no-brainer.

Solar power reality

While solar power might be as cheap as ever it doesn’t mean solar will replace the majority of conventional electric generation in the near term. The grid currently depends on the baseload power provided by things like coal, natural gas and big hydro.

No one is suggesting that solar power will provide all of your power in the next five years or even the next fifty. But once solar power reaches a critical mass, like it has in Germany and a couple other places it changes not only how the electricity system is run, but the politics surrounding it.

Conventional producers depend on reliably high daytime prices in their financial models. With solar providing low cost power during the day the business models of the conventional generators are disrupted the more solar power that comes online.

And with systems for your home coming down to the $20,000 to $30,000 range and paybacks hovering between 15-25 years you could install solar power now and get in while the getting is good.

Solar power is gathering momentum and people like Gordon Howell know it. While it may take a little more time for us regular folks to realize it, we are now in the solar power revolution and the predictions of Bloomberg and others are that it will be the single most important source of new electricity of the next 15-20 years.

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