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Kamloops woman installs solar panels to generate her own electricity

Panoramic view of Kamloops
With over 2,000 hours of sunshine annually, Kamloops is one of the better places in B.C. for solar electricity generation.

Nancy Bepple lives in Kamloops and is not a heavy user of electricity.

"I am one person in a small house," she said in a phone interview. Even so, she reduces her energy use by hanging clothes to dry in the summer. "I don't have a TV," she added.

But she wanted more control over the energy that she used. So she decided it was time to install solar panels.

Bepple explained that she had been thinking about it for some time, but the notion really stuck last Christmas when she was visiting her sister in the Netherlands. There are a great number of homes with solar panels, she explained, in part because the government had incentivized the installation of solar panels in a country where residential electricity rates are about 38 cents Canadian per kilowatt hour – more than three times the cost of electricity in B.C.

Solar panels installed on roof of older home

Early this summer, Bepple had a new roof put on her house, which was an opportune time to have her own photovoltaic panels installed. Because of the age of her house, there was some retrofitting that needed to be done. "It just made sense to do the roofing and the solar panels at the same time," she explained.

She found a local contractor who proposed a number of different options for photovoltaics. Her goal is to be able to produce 100% of her power needs within a year. Bepple's eight solar photovoltaic panels are capable of generating about 2,000 watts of electricity.

"Putting in solar in the summertime is a really good thing to do," said Bepple. The long days and sunny skies meant that Bepple saw an instant effect. She threw the switch to connect to the grid in July, and on her first bill that included solar generation, she had generated more electricity than she used.

"Part of the day I'm using power from BC Hydro," said Bepple, "but part of the time I'm selling power to BC Hydro. The last bill I got, I sold BC Hydro 127 kWh. That means that everything I needed I produced, and I still had another 127 kWh left that I could give to BC Hydro."

Generating more electricity than is needed

Not long ago, people who were generating their own electricity had few options with any energy they didn't use. Large batteries that could store the excess electricity were the only real option. But BC Hydro's Net Metering Program allows customers to flow unneeded electricity back to the grid.

"Any surplus I have goes to BC Hydro," said Bepple. "I don't need the extra complication of having batteries."

Connecting to the grid

The contractor that Bepple used provided her with everything she needed to apply for BC Hydro's Net Metering Program. "It's a very simple process," she said. The agreement include an understanding that customers will send electricity that isn't being used to the grid, and that safety features will be installed to protect BC Hydro line workers who may be working on the circuits.

"Getting the agreement with BC Hydro is very straightforward. It's not an onerous agreement at all."

The payback period

In the first week of having solar panels, Bepple confessed to watching how much electricity they were generating, using an online program that tracks their output. Now she's content to wait for her bill to come. And she knows the math isn't always going to work in her favour.

"In the wintertime, the amount of solar electricity that I'll produce will go down," she admitted. "The days are shorter, and it's not quite as sunny."

But her primary motivation was to have more control over her energy footprint. While she knows that BC Hydro's electricity is renewable, she says that's not true for all suppliers. "Within the energy grid that BC Hydro is a part of, there's many sources of power that are not hydro based," she said.

"I can't control where my power is coming from if it's BC Hydro, but I can control it if it comes off my roof."

Bepple said that if everything stays the way it is now, she will earn back her solar investment in 15 to 20 years. But while BC Hydro's residential rate of 10.6 cents per kilowatt-hour is among the lowest in North America, and far lower than in Europe, electricity rates have been increasing. "I expect them to go up for the forseeable future. I definitely think it will be far sooner than 15 years that the system will pay for itself."

In the Netherlands, Bepple said, government incentives for solar energy have either been eliminated or reduced, so fewer people are installing photovoltaic panels. But some neighbours and families are forming groups to make bulk purchases of equipment to save on costs.

Bepple's neighbours are curious. "Someone just the other day said they are going to go ahead with it. There's definitely a lot of interest," she said. "If the price of the technology comes down, I think that would be a big incentive."