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9 Busted Solar Myths You Need to Know

We busted all the common myths on solar power, including snow coverage, emissions generation, capacity growth, intermittency and more

9 Busted Solar Myths You Need to Know

There is no shortage of information on the internet these days.  With the endless supply of news comes a proportionate amount of misinformation as well.  It is important to set the record straight ad outline the facts surrounding solar energy.

In this piece we will exam and debunk the biggest criticisms of solar power.  Some of the misconceptions are based on belief (“there’s too much snow for solar in Canada”) and some are based on truth which has been misinterpreted by emphasizing unimportant factors (“solar energy is not that efficient”). 

To combat these solar myths, it is important to look at the broad scope of a system on an annual basis and over a 30+ year lifespan since that is how long the investment will last.  The day to day performance is not as much of an issue as the amount of energy generated over a year, or whether or not solar panels can supply 100% of your required energy demand. 

When evaluating the viability of solar PV, it is important to ask the right questions, and not get drawn into narrow arguments against one aspect of the industry.

let’s start with one of the most common piece of anti-solar rhetoric…

Myth #1: Solar in Canada doesn’t work because there is too much snow

It’s a little surprising that the misconception of solar panels in winter is still mentioned as frequently as it is.  

Winter does not hinder the performance of solar panels as much as you might think.  Yes, if there is 30cm of snow covering the modules, then they will not produce energy BUT the amount of hours they are covered with snow on an annual basis is minimal.

Most solar irradiance comes in spring/summer/fall months when there is no snow coverage.  If most ‘sun-hours’ come when there is no snow, then the effects of snow coverage are minimized.  To quantify this trend, NAIT perfomed an in-depth study of snow coverage on solar modules in Edmonton, Alberta and Grand Prairie, Alberta.  This study determined that snow coverage will only reduce annual solar energy output by ~5%. 

Please note:  snow coverage losses may be slightly greater than the cited value  due to the average residential property being more shielded from wind (thus creating more snow collection).  However, even at 10% loss of energy, solar panels can still generate 100% of your demand quite easily.

Solar Irradiance in Canadian Cities

Solar energy in Alberta, Saskatchewan, NWT and many other jurisdictions is net-metered which means you can develop a rolling credit in the summer time, and use up the credit during the winter when the sun is not shining as much. 

Key Takeaway: Production on December 21st does not matter as much as how much energy you produce from January 1 to December 31.  Yes there will be some days when the modules won’t turn on, but our sunny summers make up the difference.

Myth #2: It’s too cold for solar panels in Canada to work

This can easily be a subset of Myth #1 since it follows a similar logic path.  The biggest reason this is not true is that solar panels operate more efficiently in cold weather.

The cold weather actually increases the efficiency of electrical current transmission throughout all electrical devices by reducing the resistance of the wiring. 

For example a solar power system will operate at “29% better than its rating” when it is -45oC according to Gordon Howell of Howell-Mayhew Engineering.  So cold weather is actually extremely beneficial for solar energy systems. 

There are days when it is too cold for certain inverters to turn on but those days are few and far between.  Most inverters have an operating temperature range of -40oC to +60oC so below or above these extremes will adversely affect energy output.  Here in Canada, -40 is far more common than +60.  This is not a major issue though for similar reasons as cited in myth #1.

Since the solar irradiance in winter is much lower than summer, the rare event of an inverter not turning on does not adversely affect the output. Additionally, inverters are often housed inside and will never be subject to such extreme temperatures. 

Key Takeaway: Solar panels operate better in cold climates, so much so that engineers must plan for cold weather generation.

Myth #3: Solar panels are not that ‘green’

This myth gets stirred up every now and then, but is not backed up by any tangible data.  What the data does show is that the emissions of solar panels are far less than the emissions relating to coal or natural gas energy.

The overall emissions seem greater than they are since solar panels require all of their energy up-front.  But when dispersed over 30 years of emission-free generation, they prove to be much cleaner than the common alternatives.

Energy Generation Emission Intensity by Fuel Type

Even when the energy to mine, clean, process, and manufacture the solar panels is taken into account, the overall emission intensity is 3x to 10x less than traditional fossil fuels. 

Besides the emissions benefits, solar panels have an energy payback period of about 2 to 3 years according to the U.S. Department of Energy.  This is about 40% faster than a standard coal-fired power plant will pay back its energy.

No energy generation method is without its faults, there are many positive and negative environmental impacts of solar power.

Key Takeaway:  Solar panels produce far less emissions per kWh of energy than coal or natural gas and payback their energy faster than coal or natural gas.

Myth #4: Solar panels don’t pay for themselves.

Many people pushing this myth are basing their knowledge from where the PV industry was 5 or even 10 years ago.  A lot has changed since then. Efficiency of solar panels continues to increase, and material cost as well as installation costs steadily decrease every year. 

Solar panels will pay for themselves in ~8 to 16 years depending on what province you’re in.  Your location will determine the key metrics when trying to assess the cost of solar panels.  These factors are what solar power incentives are available to you, how much you pay for energy/transmission & distribution, and how developed the solar market is (more solar installers typically means more competitive pricing). 

Payback Period of Solar Panels

Solar panels have now reached the point where they will pay for themselves.  It is still a medium to long-term investment, but it makes sense especially if you plan on being in the same house for the next 15 years.

Key Takeaway:  If you’re looking to get your money back in 5 years, try private equity investment.  If you are looking for a very safe long-term investment which will pay for itself over time while providing you insurance against a volatile electricity market, then look no further.

Myth #5: Batteries are too expensive to make solar viable

This myth usually stems from people not knowing that most solar PV systems do not need batteries.  Unless you really want or need backup power, batteries are not required or recommended for grid-connected solar arrays.

Yes batteries are expensive, which is precisely why we do not recommend the average homeowner to buy them. 

Rather than store your excess energy in a battery, net metering through your electrical retailer will allow you to sell your energy back to the grid for a credit, which will roll over month by month.  When the sun is not shining such as at night, you will simply draw energy from the grid, potentially using up your stored credit.

In select cases batteries are required such as for off-grid solar powered homes, then the expense of batteries is far superior to the alternative of not having power.  

Key Takeaway: Grid-connected solar power systems do not require batteries.  When the solar panels are not generating energy, you can draw from the grid and use up your credit.

Myth #6: Solar panels ‘just aren’t there yet’

I’m sure we’ve all heard this one.  This myth is usually followed by people citing the efficiency of solar panels is only 15% to 20%.  Although that efficiency is true, what slips through the cracks is that the efficiency is not relevant to what the end user wants.   

The important questions to ask relate to what the homeowner or business owner cares about:

-Can solar power supply 100% of my energy demand?  Yes.

-Will solar panels pay for themselves? Yes.

-Does solar power produce cleaner energy than fossil fuels? Yes.

The efficiency of solar panels results in having to install more solar panels, which is not a problem in itself, since they will pay for themselves and produce less emissions than fossil fuels.

The efficiency is not a deterring factor because there is an unlimited supply of solar energy (until the sun burns out in ~5Bn years).  Wasting solar energy we do not lose anything since there will be more tomorrow and the work has already occurred to create the solar panel.  On the other hand, the inefficiency of coal or natural gas power plants in Alberta (which are only 23% to 33% efficient) means more work and capital must be incurred to create energy. 

Key Takeaway: Solar efficiency is misleading.  The value of a solar PV system is determined by the long-term economics, not the internal efficiency of the components.  Solar panels can generate 100% of your energy demand and will pay for themselves, it just might take 20 solar panels instead of 15 for the time being.

Myth #7: Solar energy is too intermittent to be viable

This myth relates only to utility-scale energy generation since residential and commercial-scale solar PV take advantage of net metering to mitigate solar intermittency.

To clarify, solar intermittency is an issue because people require energy regardless of whether or not the sun is shining.  This is a key argument against solar power, one which holds more merit than most of the items on this list, and is actively being combated with new technology and innovation. 

The primary solution for this is to develop utility-scale battery banks to store vast amounts of energy.  The battery industry, is not currently sufficient to supply enough storage for the world, but the technology is exponentially advancing and is already being deployed on larger scales.

What is important to realize is that solar PV only generates a small portion of global energy so there is little reliance on it.  As technology continues it exponential growth, the market for battery storage systems will follow the demand.  When solar reaches the point where it is a common energy source in 10 to 20+ years, battery technology will have developed substantially. 

Technology trends are hard to visualize and easy to scoff at, so for some context, think of computers in 1977 – they required a sizeable amount of square footage if you could even afford one.  Now think of computers 20 years later in 1997 – they fit onto a desk, came in a myriad of options and were affordable to the masses.  Now think ahead another 20 years to 2017 where computers and cell phones are more prevalent than running water in many countries.  Today, there are over 4Bn people with cell phones that have more processing power than the president of the United States had access to in 1977, just a few decades later.

This gives some context as to how technology develops to meet demand, and batteries are on the same path.

Key Takeaway: Batteries may not be where they need to be today, but markets always meet the demand of consumers.  For most consumers, solar intermittency does not pose a problem if connected to the grid.

Myth #8: Solar capacity growth does not tell the full story

More and more people are writing about how the solar industry is misleading the public by citing capacity growth trends. 

The basis for this is somewhat of a head-scratcher since growth in PV capacity is a very compelling sign of a healthy industry accelerating to meet the growing demand of the public. But I will humour the naysayers and outline 'the whole story' of solar here.

Solar PV capacity is increasing at ~95%/yr in Alberta (since 2008).  Globally, PV capacity is increasing at around 60%/yr.  These numbers do not mean that solar is already dominating the market, but that it is slowly catching on. The graph below shows the Alberta solar power capacity growth trend of the last decade.

Alberta Solar panels growth trend

Solar energy represents a tiny, tiny fraction of global energy and even smaller fraction in Canada.  Solar energy in Alberta represents about 0.1% of the energy generation profile, with about 90% coming from fossil fuels.  The image below shows the breakdown, with solar not even visible.

Alberta Energy Profile by Fuel Type

In Ontario, which has 99%+ of the solar power in Canada, about 1% of the province’s energy comes from solar.  Currently, solar energy plays a minuscule role in the energy generation in Canada and the world.

Energy Generation by Province and Fuel Type

But this data does not mean that solar power doesn’t work, or isn’t viable.  It simply means that more time is required for the solar market in Canada to develop.  Provinces such as Alberta would benefit from more solar since the emissions from energy generation are the highest in the country due to coal being the dominant fuel source.

Key Takeaway: Solar power installations are growing at an optimistic pace, but there is no doubt that the industry has a very long road ahead to become a dominant fuel source. 

Myth #9: GHG Emissions in Canada are not bad enough to need solar

People often cite this piece of information as if other people being worse than us is a reason to not improve our own operations. 

Canada’s emissions are growing steadily with no tangible plan in place to reduce them.  If emissions are growing, and emissions are causing climate change, then other people emitting more than us is hardly a defense or moreover, a reason to not implement clean technology. 

Canada’s emissions are not the worst in the world, far from it.  But as a prosperous, developed nation, we have the opportunity and the capability to be a leader in emissions control which will lead to a more prosperous economy.

Key Takeaway: Others emitting more than us is not a sound reason why we should continue to emit GHG at unprecedented and detrimental rates.

Conclusion

There does not have to be a choice between the economy and the environment. The impacts of emission generation and pollution are already affecting humans across the globe.  

There are plenty of myths and misinformation surrounding solar power.  These are just a few of the common misconceptions in the market today.  As the industry grows and develops, there will be more misinformation which needs correcting and we will update this list as necessary.

In the end it is important to not focus on one small aspect of solar power, but think broadly about the benefits of solar power.

No fuel source is perfect, but solar energy is quickly developing into a viable means of generating energy for people on a mass scale.

 

 

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