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Watt's Happening: Harnessing that great nuclear reactor in the sky

Pollution-free sunlight is the fuel
Don Pettit: "Did you know that enough solar energy strikes the Earth every hour to power our whole worldwide civilization for a year?"

‚Äčdon‚ÄčThere are many small but important things you can do to fight climate change: reuse, recycle, compost, grow vegetables, drive less, buy less, and take a cloth bag to the store… These small steps all help. Keep doing them!

But there are three really big things you can do that will have a very large impact on your personal environmental and carbon footprint. Two of those we covered in my last Watt’s Happening: make your next vehicle electric, and heat/cool your home with a heat pump. These are big, and they have a whopping big impact too.

Today we’ll talk about the third big thing you can do: generate your own solar electricity.

Why is solar green?

It’s green because pollution-free sunlight is the fuel, delivered to you every day by that great nuclear reactor in the sky, the Sun.

It’s green because your solar electricity is generated right where it is used, eliminating the usual 20% transmission losses from huge centralized power stations.

It’s green because solar panels run for decades with no maintenance, because there are no moving parts to wear out, and no pollution or noise. I can personally attest to their longevity: as an early solar adopter, some of my home solar panels are 30-plus years old and doing just fine.

And let’s remember, if there should ever be a massive uncontrolled solar energy spill, it will just be another nice sunny day.

Solar is huge

Global solar is doubling every three years, with no end in sight. Solar will be the largest single source of energy on the planet in just 15 or 20 years. Wow.

Solar technology is new to Western Canada. In B.C., for instance, there are only about 3000 rooftop solar arrays powering homes and businesses. In Japan there are over two million, Australia more than three million. China? I’ve lost count, but it is by far the world leader in solar, with some 10,000 new solar homes installed every day!

And now with a more progressive administration south of the border, the U.S. is poised to catch up with China in just a few years.

Why? Solar is cheap

Did you know that enough solar energy strikes the Earth every hour to power our whole worldwide civilization for a year?

And did you know that the cost of solar power has dropped by 80% since about 2010?

Solar panels are rugged. They are so good and reliable that they come with 25-year warranties!

Solar power has become the fastest growing and cheapest energy source the world has ever seen. Around the world, solar is now achieving “grid parity” meaning it can compete with all other sources of energy, without subsidies.

How is this possible? Massive upscale in automated manufacturing, and continuous improvements in solar panel efficiency. Extremely low maintenance, very high reliability and very long life (50 years plus). And a “fuel” that just keeps pouring out of the sky, free for the harvesting.

Solar saves money

Sure, there’s an up-front expense to install solar, but it is one of the best financial investments you can make.

I installed a 5,000-watt grid-tied solar array on my business building in Dawson Creek in Northeast B.C. eight years ago, and have paid very close to zero dollars for electricity since. The return on my $15,000 solar investment? About 6% per year, increasing year after year as the cost of grid electricity continues to rise.

Maintenance? Essentially zero. No moving parts, nothing to wear out or break.

Grid-tie solar

OK, but how do I power my solar-powered home at night, or in the winter when the solar panels are covered with snow? Do I need batteries or something to store the electricity?


Attaching the solar array to the electrical grid – a “grid-tied” system, has neatly solved the problem. With grid-tie your solar array first powers your home then feeds extra power (power you don’t need right now) into the grid, which builds up as a credit on your account. This credit can then be used up at night and all winter long. Works perfectly, and can result in reduced or zero electrical bills year after year.

Solar: another really big thing you can do to fight climate change, and save money while you’re at it.

Don Pettit lives and writes in Dawson Creek, and is Executive Director of Peace Energy Cooperative.