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Solar panels 'eliminate' electricity bills at Dawson Creek office

Solar panels cover the roof of a Dawson Creek office building
Don Pettit is landlord and one of the tenants of this Dawson Creek office, which was fitted with photovoltaic solar panels in November, 2013, and has since produced much more electricity than what is needed to power the building.

‘By June, I was producing 10 times as much electricity as I was using’

Posted by Rob Klovance

It appears there are significant side effects to getting close to solar power. It’s a condition we’ll call photovoltaic-itis, and it manifests itself in shrinking electricity bills and the onset of giddiness.

“I think renewable energy is fun, fascinating, and amazing,” gushes Don Pettit, who installed photovoltaic panels at his home just outside of Dawson Creek more than 30 years ago and hasn’t been quite the same since. “I can’t understand why anybody with even the slightest bit of enthusiasm for the future isn’t quite interested in it. It’s totally cool.”

Just over a year ago, sun worshipper Pettit went a step further with the installation of photovoltaic panels on the roof of his three-storey office building in Dawson Creek and connected these to the BC Hydro grid. He works there as a writer-photographer and is landlord to three other tenants, including the Peace Energy Cooperative, which has begun selling and installing the panels.

“They wanted a demonstration project, so they were pleased,” recalls Pettit, a founding member of the cooperative. “They got a sale out of it, plus they now have a solar-powered office that looks really sharp.”

Long summer days in B.C.’s northeast pay off in surplus power

A demonstration project is only as good as its performance. No sooner had the panels been installed when winter arrived, and snow sometimes covered the roof and all but eliminated power production.

But with a 45-degree roof angle, snow would slide off the panels whenever temperatures rose. And by March, Pettit discovered just what the solar panels were capable of.

“Right away we were producing five times as much power as we were using, even with the furnace running quite a bit,” he recalls. “And by June, I was producing 10 times more power than I was using.

“In summer, the sun’s up all day. It’s up at 5 in the morning, and sets at 11. And boy did the panels ever produce – it was just unbelievable.”

A few weeks ago, Pettit did some number crunching and determined that, even with little power production in the winter, he had generated enough power over the course of a year to easily cover his electricity needs and give him a credit of 2,173 kilowatt hours. He has been able to sell his excess power back to the BC Hydro grid at 10 cents per kilowatt-hour.

“BC Hydro has made it easy to grid-tie,” says Pettit, referring to BC Hydro’s net metering program that sets up a two-way exchange of power with certain customers. “It’s absolutely a piece of cake now.”

Don Pettit poses with solar panels he purchased for his home in the 1980s.
Don Pettit poses in front of photovoltaic panels he installed at his Dawson Creek-area home in the 1980s. He expects they'll still be producing power for the home 20 years down the road.

Plummeting cost of PV panels makes it easier

Pettit says that when he “solarized” his home back in the 1980s, the cost of a 50-watt PV panel was about $800. A similar panel today costs him about $75.

At that price, Pettit set out to cover as much of his roof in PV panels as possible. And to hedge his bets in his quest to be “net zero in terms of electricity”, he quickly tried to identify if he might be able to curb any electricity waste.

“As soon as I solarized the building, I became very aware of how much power I was using,” he says. “Really, I just took a walk around the building and looked at every point of usage, and boy it didn’t’ take long to find out I was wasting an awful lot of power.”

One of the big culprits was an outdoor light he had inherited when he bought the building 12 years earlier. The solar sensor designed to turn the light off in daylight wasn’t working properly, and he discovered that ambient light from the city was more than enough for him to safely get to his car in the dark. So he switched it off for good.

Combined with the replacement of dozens of inefficient incandescent lights with CFLs and LEDs, and efforts by tenants to turn office equipment off after hours, Pettit estimates that the building’s electricity use has been reduced by at least a third.

The electric fan in the building’s aging gas furnace still drives electricity use up in winter, and Pettit is planning to replace the unit with something more efficient.

Panels expected to last well beyond 25-year warranty period

Pettit has also discovered firsthand that properly maintained PV panels can last a lot longer than most people expect.

“I’ve had lots of people question me on that, but I’ve got the proof sitting on my roof five miles out of town,” he says. “There they are. You look at them and they look as good as the day I bought them, and their output is superb.”

Pettit expects at least another 20 years out of the PV panels at his home, and sees no reason why the new panels at his office won’t also last well beyond the 25-year product warranty.

Not surprisingly, interest in solar power conversions in Dawson Creek is growing fast. The Peace Energy Co-operative installed 31 kilowatts of panels last year, and so far this year has orders for 12 more homes and small businesses, plus two far larger facilities.

“Even if you have to amortize it over the 25 years, the investment now is so minimal,” says Pettit. “This whole system on my roof cost $17,000. Some people spend that much on a paved friggin’ driveway, or granite countertops in their kitchen with a few new cupboards.

“But this asset pays for itself – it’s eliminating my electrical bills.”

Rob Klovance is managing editor of bchydro.com.