Switching on solar in the Sunny Okanagan

Switching on solar in the Sunny Okanagan

Workers from Swiss Solar Tech install one of the remaining solar electricity panels on Burrowing Owl Winery’s carport. The winery has other panels on building roofs for a total of 541. (Richard McGuire photo)

By Richard McGuire

As solar panels plunge in price and improve their efficiency, more and more South Okanagan businesses and homeowners are installing them.

The price of free electricity from the sun is still steep upfront – requiring a major investment.

But Roger Huber, owner of Summerland-based Swiss Solar Tech, says for some projects the payback time is now less than five years.

Huber’s company has just completed a major solar installation project at Burrowing Owl Estate Winery off Black Sage Road between Oliver and Osoyoos.

With a total of 541 solar photovoltaic panels on rooftops at the winery and other buildings the winery owns in Oliver and Osoyoos, Burrowing Owl can now produce 199,580 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year and offset about 101 tons of carbon emissions.

In August, Huber’s company put the finishing touches on a carport at the winery with 108 panels that winery owner Jim Wyse will use to show off the technology’s potential.

“Everyone asks if we did this for economic reasons,” says Wyse referring to the carport. “I’d say no, we did this to showcase solar. But the other ones (the roof installations) do make economic sense.”

Huber estimates the payback time on the carport could be over 15 years because of costs of the structure, instead of the five years that is more typical of rooftop installations.

But Wyse, a committed environmentalist, said it’s still a win. The winery consumes a lot of electricity in its operation, but Wyse aims to produce as much solar electricity as the winery uses.

“The whole object is to get to net zero,” says Wyse, refering to the point at which the winery produces as much electicity as it consumes.

The sun only shines during the day. At night and in the winter, the winery will still draw electricity from the grid, but on sunny summer days it will sell its surplus back to FortisBC. This system is known as “net metering.” There’s no battery storage.

“We’re using the grid as storage,” says Wyse. “But in total usage, we target net zero. It’s a good target.”

Burrowing Owl isn’t the only local winery to go solar.

Last October, Gehringer Brothers Estate Winery launched their own solar project, also hiring Swiss Solar Tech to install 144 panels, including bifacial panels which can harness sunlight on both sides.

Winemaker Walter Gehringer said the project was precipitated by the 2015 wildfires in Oliver. At the time, the roof construction at the winery consisted of cedar shakes, a high fire hazard.

“It was time for re-roofing,” said Gehringer. “When the fires hit, it was more than time to re-roof.”

Gehringer sees solar power as the beginning of a new wave and envisions it becoming a general part of house construction in the future.

“We’re a green province,” he said. “If everyone worked with solar, then we might eliminate our power requirement.”

Gehringer said they paid approximately $150,000 for the solar roof, but he believes that will be paid for in 12 to 15 years in energy savings.

When the last panels were put in place at Burrowing Owl in August, Paul McCavour and his wife Julie Turner watched with interest from a tower at the winery.

The couple installed 24 panels at their Osoyoos home in 2014 and with Huber’s help, they added another 16 the following year.

McCavour has become something of a solar evangelist, never passing up the opportunity to promote solar electricity. He sends interested businesses and homeowners in Huber’s direction, not for any financial benefit to himself.

“I tell them about what I save, as an ordinary person with no ties to Roger Humber except I want to promote solar,” he says.

The cost of installing 40 panels at McCavour’s home was around $45,000, but costs have since come down and McCavour also made a costly mistake with his original installation.

“Today you can get 40 solar panels for $25,000 to $28,000,” he says. “The same panels today produce more power than mine. You also need half the number of inverters, so they are a better bargain. If you run a business, you can write off your costs for solar energy every year.”

McCavour’s mistake in 2014 was installing a number of the panels on ground behind his home. Because it was on the side of a mountain, he lost the direct sunlight too early in the afternoon. Had he not had to move the panels and place some of them on a tracking system, his installation might have cost $35,000, he said.

Still, despite the large initial investment, McCavour and Turner have seen the electricity bills for their substantial home near the Osoyoos Golf Club plummet.

“I took out the natural gas in my home and went totally electric,” says McCavour. “In 2016, my total energy bill was $11 instead of $4,000.”

McCavour also uses net metering, selling his surplus electricity back to FortisBC and drawing from the grid at night and other times with less sunlight.

When his panels first went live, he was impressed to see his electricity meter running backwards and would show it off to visitors.

Over the next year, the solar evangelist helped to convince a couple of neighbours to install panels, and since then he’s been working on converting numerous others.

McCavour, a committed environmentalist, sees solar electricity as the future, even though he acknowledges that carbon fuels will continue to play a role in British Columbia.

“Soon electric cars will be the norm,” he said. “When you have solar panels, you’ll be able to charge a car at home. This will help you repay your solar system costs.”

Toyota plans to produce an electric vehicle in the U.S. for 2022 that will have a solid-state battery that charges in 20 minutes, he said. Ford is partnering with a Chinese electric automaker and plans to build 6 million cars in the first year.

The next game changer, he adds, will be storage batteries that can retain large amounts of electricity for cloudy times.

Evolution is still coming, but the solar future has started.

With files from Lyonel Doherty.

Osoyoos solar evangelist Paul McCavour stands on panels he installed at his home in 2014. He later moved the panels to his roof, admitting his biggest mistake was the poor original location which lost sun in the late afternoon. (Richard McGuire photo)