Manitoba sunshine brightens solar power opportunities

Many hours of sunshine make power generation possible even in the dead of winter

Justin Phillips doesn’t mince his words: If you’re a Manitoba farmer, the time to invest in solar power is right now.

The Winnipeg-based businessman helped pioneer the solar industry in Manitoba and has watched Manitoba Hydro kick-start the industry to unexpected heights via a farmer-friendly pilot program that has one year left on it.

That fact, he says, should be more than enough motivation for those on the fence about solar power to take a hard look at a solar panel installation on their farm operations.

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“A solar panel installation is the only piece of equipment that a farmer will buy that won’t break down as it makes them money,” says Phillips. “And the farmers love that.”

Phillips is president and founding partner of Sycamore Energy Inc., and most recently Solar Manitoba, a solar and renewable energy developer. Phillips launched his first sustainable business in 2008 and the award-winning entrepreneur is a champion for alternative sources of energy in Manitoba. Among the many hats he wears on several community and business boards, Phillips is also a director for the Manitoba Sustainable Energy Association (ManSEA). He applauds Manitoba Hydro’s 2016 Power Smart Solar Energy Program that offers incentives and financial support to adopt solar power and allow consumers to generate their own electricity as Canada’s best rebate. Especially, he says, for farmers and producers.

“Farmers and producers use huge amounts of electricity for their operations,” says Phillips. “So, in essence, when they install a solar panel they are hedging their bets against future Manitoba Hydro electricity price increases. A solar panel lasts for 30 years and for their homes and operations over that period, producers are locking in at a set rate today as opposed to continuing to pay higher rates for electricity in the years to come.”

Phillips says the win for Manitoba Hydro via the pilot program is that it frees up electricity previously earmarked for in-province customers and puts it back on grid for the export market. He said the pilot program has been a success. Wayne Digby, Phillips’s colleague on the ManSEA board concurs.

“With the Manitoba Hydro incentive program this sector has seen a huge increase over the past year with many agricultural producers considering solar,” says Digby.

Areas of Manitoba can see more than 2,300 hours of sunshine annually. But, even the sunniest facts can come with clouds. Phillips says he has heard it all when it comes to reasons to not install solar panels, with concerns around hail and snow damage being the most common.

“These panels are new to Manitoba but they are commonly used in California, Germany and Norway among other places. They are tried, tested and true,” says Phillips. “In the winter, most of the time the residual heat off the panel is enough to melt any accumulation of snow.”

With the climate right and the incentive program in place, Phillips says the only thing remaining for producers is to protect their own interests.

“Choose a reputable company for your installation,” says Phillips. “Solar is an investment, not a product purchase.”

Solar tech improving

Most Manitoba farm operations will be looking to install solar photovoltaic (PV) cells for their operations. According to Manitoba Hydro’s website PV cells are made of semiconductor materials and designed to convert sunlight into electricity through the photoelectric effect.

When photons (packets of light energy) strike solar cells, a reaction releases electrons that produce voltage to drive an electric current. There are many things that use PV for power, such as garden lighting systems, calculators, and remote, off-grid electricity sources designed to power farms and cottages.

But as PV costs have continued to come down, the technology has become more attractive for wide-scale use in Manitoba.

Solar PV can now be used to run homes and businesses, and depending on the installation size, provide electrical power to the grid.

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