‘It’ll become a no-brainer’: Edmonton’s solar pioneer predicts exponential growth
During this heatwave, it’s tough to avoid the sun — and that’s great news for those with solar panels on their roofs.
Gordon Howell first took an interest in the technology four decades ago, in 1977.
“I decided at that time that I wanted to be involved in solar energy systems, to make a difference in the world,” he says.
As an electrical engineer, he monitored a few of Canada’s first solar projects.
The company then known as Edmonton Power found him in the phone book and approached him with an idea.
“‘We want to do a practical project on this so we can look at how solar is connected to the grid. What are the barriers, what are the opportunities?’ And so I said, ‘I’ve always wanted to put a solar system on the roof of my house.'”
They got funding for the trial and Howell became the first person in Edmonton to install solar panels on his roof, in 1995.
“It was the first grid-connected solar electric system west of Toronto. The twelfth one in Canada and the fourth one on a house in Canada,” explained Howell.
“Whenever you do anything new, it’s quite expensive. It’s not cost-effective. The payback on my system, on one hand, was 210 years.”
It was designed as a learning project, and Edmonton Power was so pleased with how it went, the company installed panels on its own roof as well.
Then, things were quiet for a long time in Edmonton, as the price deterred many from even considering the technology.
“My 2.3-kilowatt solar-power system, very small, cost $40,000 to do. These days we could do it in the order of $8-9,000. That’s how much the price has come down and the efficiencies have gone up,” Howell says.
It wasn’t until 2012, when the price of solar generation dropped significantly, that the market started really heating up.
For Howell, helping people go solar is his passion.
“Lots of them will say [they’re doing it] because they want to save money, or because they want to reduce their emission footprint. It’s fascinating the number of people who say, ‘I want to be the first one on the block,'” he said.
“Somebody said to me, ‘I want to look my grandkids in the eyes and say that I tried.'”
Today, he estimates 400 homes in Edmonton generate their own electricity from the sun, and about 1,800 across the province.
Howell also said with the new rebates announced by the province, the payback for a system has dropped to about 21 years.
He predicts in 2018, two to three homes across Alberta will be converting to solar every day.
“The sun is always with us. The sun is an energy source. I think that solar on people’s houses will become very, very common. It’ll become a no-brainer.”
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