Photo: Walking the talk: Putting the sun to work on Canada's Prairies

Photo courtesy of Lynn Oliphant

By Steve Kux, David Suzuki Foundation Policy Analyst

Sun shines on the Prairie provinces more often than anywhere else in Canada. That's what inspired retired University of Saskatchewan professor Lynn Oliphant to start taking advantage of this untapped resource. Oliphant, who lives outside Saskatoon with his wife, Rhonda Shewfelt, is a lifelong sustainable technologies advocate and adopter, but the decision to install solar panels on his property two years ago was as much a matter of economics as environmentalism.

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"We're already getting a five per cent return on our investment," Oliphant told me over the phone. "If electricity rates continue to go up, that could become a 10 per cent return."

Oliphant said the biggest challenge in using the sun to heat and power his home has been figuring out what to do with the excess power. Unlike provinces such as British Columbia and Ontario, where net metering and feed-in-tariff policies provide a financial reward to households that produce more power than they use, solar homes in rural Saskatchewan simply pour their excess electricity into the provincial grid for free. To use excess power after it is produced — such as after the sun goes down — Oliphant must pay GST on the power he takes back from the grid, in effect, paying for power his own solar panels generated.

To get around this problem, he opted to invest in a means of putting the excess electricity to work. Although a home battery system would have served as a useful backup in the event of a power outage on the provincial electricity grid, Oliphant opted for something equally practical but a lot more fun.

After doing online research, Oliphant located and bought a used Chevrolet Volt in Vancouver. His decision to buy outside of Saskatchewan was motivated by better availability of electric vehicles in provinces with policies to support them. B.C., Ontario and Quebec offer residents financial rebates on new electric vehicle purchases, the largest of which are Ontario's — up to $14,000 on the new Chevy Bolt, a pure electric vehicle that has a range of around 400 kilometres on a full charge. Sellers of used vehicles factor these savings into resale prices, meaning Oliphant got a great deal in Vancouver and fuelled the drive home partly using the money he saved — when he wasn't riding purely on electrons.

The Volt is a plug-in hybrid vehicle that stores enough battery power to travel up to 70 kilometres on electricity alone. When the car runs out of battery power, an internal combustion engine kicks in to power the wheels and recharge the battery. This allows Oliphant to do most of his daily driving using excess power from his solar panels while providing flexibility to drive beyond the car's range when he needs to.

"It drives like a sports car," Oliphant said. "The acceleration is tremendous. Even when running on straight gas it gets between six and seven litres per 100 kilometres. We believe if we keep the car for 10 years we will have saved over $15,000 in fuel costs alone, even if we were paying for the electricity."

The long-held view of electric vehicles as glorified golf carts is giving way to a realization that they can be exceptionally fun to drive or ride in, as Oliphant assures me his friends and neighbours can attest.

As much as he loves his current ride, Oliphant has his eye on something with a bigger battery. His ultimate goal is to be able to store excess energy in his vehicle and use it as a backup energy source for his home. The technology to do this is new, but he's confident it will be more wildly available soon.

Oliphant's story is an incredible example of the benefits of transitioning to clean energy sources, even in places that don't yet have government incentives in place. Farmers won't be the only ones to take advantage of Saskatchewan's sunny days in the near future.
"I am at a loss to explain why more people aren't moving in this direction simply based on economics let alone the environmental implications of following our current path," Oliphant said.

January 18, 2017

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