Solar panels the top choice in selling electricity back to BC Hydro

Image of worker installing solar panels
A typical residential roof has enough room for about 16 photovoltaic solar panels, which can be capable of meeting the electricity needs of a typical small home in B.C. for half a year.

Consider adding solar generation, and cut down on what you need to buy from us

We're used to having electricity delivered to our homes. Now you can actually give some back.

BC Hydro's Net Metering program allows business and residential customers to connect their own source of clean and renewable generation to the grid, says Alevtina Akbulatova.

Put simply: You generate your own electricity.

Akbulatova coordinates the program for BC Hydro, and her enthusiasm for it came across over the phone while she explained how it works. "The primary objective is to offset their consumption," she said, "so on a sunny day, they're not drawing power from BC Hydro."

How you can generate your own electricity

You can't just generate electricity any way you want. Our province prides itself on its history of clean generation, and that applies to self generation, too.

Clean and renewable generation of electricity can come from biogas or biomass, geothermal, hydro, solar, wave or tidal, and wind.

Some people who have creeks running through their properties have been able to set up their own hydroelectric generators, but most residential self generators — about 95% — are using the sun.

"Solar is pretty straightforward," explained Akbulatova.

There's no digging required and it doesn't require any major infrastructure to accommodate a generator. The panels are installed, usually on the roof, and then connected to the main electrical panel in the house.

The entire system can be set up by professional installers in only a couple of days. While you may be able to install the solar panels yourself, Akbulatova said a qualified electrician must do the wiring.

And once you're set up, there's almost no maintenance, except occasional dusting.

The ideal conditions for solar generation include having a south-facing roof the panels can be installed on that's not shaded by trees or other objects that prevent sunlight from reaching the panels.

Making it easy for customers to generate their own electricity

The Canadian electrical code requires that anyone wanting to connect to the electrical grid get authorization from the local utility. The Net Metering program is how BC Hydro gives customers that approval. And the application process has been recognized by other utilities as being simple and easy.

That was by design, said BC Hydro's Brandee Clayton. "This program was created because our customers want to be able to do this."

Added Akbulatova: "Almost everybody who applies gets approved."

The role of smart meters

Being able to send electricity back to the grid is made possible by smart meters.

"All of our smart meters are bidirectional," explained Akbulatova. Electricity can flow to your house, or from your house, and the meter registers what's going on in both directions.

So if you're not at home on that sunny day, all the electricity generated by your solar panels automatically flows back the other way. And at night, when there's no solar activity to generate electricity, power will flow from the grid to your home to keep the lights and the TV on.

Every month, the meter readings show how much electricity you've brought in, and how much you've sent back. You pay only for the difference.

When BC Hydro pays you for electricity

The truth is that very few customers are able to make money generating electricity. They would have to be able to generate a great deal of electricity while using very little.

But there are a few who can, said Akbulatova. And once a year, on the anniversary date of the customer joining the Net Metering program, if they've sent more electricity than they've received, they get a cheque for 9.99 cents per kWh.

Ultimately, generating your own electricity helps most by reducing your need for electricity from BC Hydro.

With two-tier residential rates, you pay four cents more — about a third more than the regular rate — for each kWh you use after you cross the conservation rate threshold.

When you have even a few panels on your roof, said Akbulatova, you're able to keep your electrical use down so that you may never cross that threshold. "For a lot of people, that's where the electricity bill gets expensive."

How much electricity can you generate?

There's a misconception, said Akbulatova, that Canada doesn't get enough sunlight to justify the cost of installing panels. The reality is that even on cloudy days, solar panels can still generate electricity.

And while not every location in B.C. gets the same amount of sun — the Lower Mainland's North Shore is often socked in during the winter — the average amount of sunlight across B.C. is close to that in some countries,  such as Germany and Japan,  that are big on solar.

A typical residential roof can accommodate 16 solar panels, which generates 4,400 kWh in a normal year. That's enough to run a home entertainment centre for four years. Or to power a small home for half a year or more.

Why you might want to generate your own electricity

The reasons you might want to generate your own power are varied. If you're motivated to reduce your environmental footprint, remember that BC Hydro's electricity is already clean and renewable. But other reasons include:

  • Supplementing your electricity needs
  • Increasing the value of your property
  • Creating electricity if you live somewhere that can't connect to the grid

The cost of being able to generate your own electricity

While the cost of adding self-generation to your home is cheaper today than ever before, installing solar panels remains a significant investment.

A 16-panel set-up like the one described above could cost between $10,000 and $20,000. At today's rates, it could take at least 20 years to recoup that investment.

But some people see it as a smart investment in the future. And it can be.