A summer of forest fires, and now, unprecedented flooding in British Columbia, have set off alarm bells about the quickening pace of climate change and the consequences of foot-dragging on action to keep it from delivering more catastrophes. But in this province, what’s the status of efforts to put a serious dent in CO2 emissions?

Nova Scotia Power’s plan to reduce carbon emissions relies heavily on importing hydroelectricity from Muskrat Falls in Labrador and, potentially, from Hydro Quebec. While delays and negotiations continue, Plan “B” at Nova Scotia Power includes developing renewable energy here at home. 

That includes more wind farms and experimenting with a suite of solar and battery storage projects that might lead to lower power rates in the future… if intermittent energy from the sun and wind can be stored and released.

Community solar and battery storage projects are part of a $19.1 million project called Smart Grid Nova Scotia. Thanks to contributions from Ottawa and the province, ratepayers will cover only $7 million of the total. In fact, Nova Scotia Power puts less than 1% of its annual revenues into innovative projects such as Smart Grid.

Tesla or Sunverge batteries have been installed in 125 homes across the province. Homeowners pay $25-35 a month for the batteries, which act as back-up during power outages. Nova Scotia Power uses software to control when the batteries get charged (overnight when demand is lowest) and when the stored energy is distributed to the grid (during the morning surge from toasters and kettles, and in the evening when dryers and TVs get switched on).

A Tesla Powerwall battery. Photo: Nova Scotia Power

The Smart Grid project runs until 2023. It builds on the success of an earlier project in Elmsdale that involved 10 households and professor Jeff Dahn’s Tesla lab at Dalhousie University. During all-too-familiar power outages, the first-generation Tesla batteries provided power to critical appliances for up to 18 hours. A larger battery at the substation in Elmsdale stored energy from a wind farm at Hardwood Lands a few kilometres away.

The current field test uses next-generation batteries. Nova Scotia Power has also recruited 101 drivers of electric vehicles (EVs) to test chargers installed at their homes. The perk for drivers is that EVs take less time to recharge. The advantage for Nova Scotia Power is that the utility controls the time of day when power flows to charge the car and when energy from the battery flows in the opposite direction to feed the home. 

Here is how Shawn Connell, Nova Scotia Power’s customer solutions director, describes the projects underway through the Smart Grid:

With NB Power and Siemens as partners, we are developing a piece of software (known as an Energy Systems Platform) that controls and optimizes all the distributed energy resources in the Project. This includes the batteries in homes, the charging ports for Electric Vehicles (EVs), the bidirectional controlling of vehicle batteries to the home, and the solar panels and battery combinations for the benefit of all NS Power customers.

The idea, as Connell suggests, is that if Nova Scotia Power can figure out how to control the use of renewable energy from off-on again sources like the sun and the wind, the utility wouldn’t have to buy more expensive power during cold winter nights.

“This pilot program is dedicated to investigating innovative ways that battery storage can benefit both Nova Scotians’ homes and the power system as a whole,” says information about the Smart Grid from NS Power’s website. It’s based on efforts to lower power use during peak times, shift demand to off-peak times (like overnight), and transition to using more clean energy.”

So much for individual homes. But what about activity on a larger scale?

Sunny ways

It’s been a long time coming, but next month Nova Scotia Power will finish building its first Community Solar Garden, located in the Amherst Industrial Park. 

Over the next few weeks, Nova Scotia Power will recruit customers to pay a portion of the project’s cost in return for lower-priced solar power once the project is paid off. The payback period is nine to 10 years, so the idea is similar to taking out a mortgage instead of renting. Nova Scotia Power estimates the solar garden will cost $1.3 million a year to operate, with subscribers likely to pay about $3 extra a month by the end of Year 1.

“A solar garden is important because it allows all Nova Scotians to participate. Not everybody owns a home and if they do, they can’t afford the upfront cost, which averages $20,000 for a solar installation,” said Shawn Connell, director of Customer Solutions for NS Power.

The Amherst solar garden. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

On the flip side, information about the Solar Homes program posted by Efficiency One suggests the average homeowner saves $1,750 a year once the new system is paid off. Efficiency One’s rebates (up to $6,000) through the Solar Homes program offer additional encouragement. So far this year, 2,000 homeowners have applied for the rebate and the number of solar installation companies has grown from 13 in 2018 to 79 today. Last year Efficiency One approved 1,000 solar installations. 

Nova Scotia Power’s Community Solar project in Amherst is small, producing 2 megawatts (mW) to serve about 240 homes. A larger 9mW community solar project is scheduled to be built next year by the towns of Antigonish, Berwick, and Mahone Bay. These three towns have previously invested as a group in wind farms as a means of diversifying their locally owned electric companies. 

Concern over climate change and, significantly, the highest prices for electricity in Canada are driving growth in solar photovoltaic (PV) installations, according to Dave Brushett, a volunteer director with Solar Nova Scotia, a non-profit group with about 70 members. 

But will paperwork trump renewable power?

More red tape

Given growing consumer interest, it was disappointing to read results from the Canadian Renewable Energy Association’s survey of Nova Scotia solar companies released earlier this month (Nov 5).

“The Solar Friendly Communities study found that there are significant soft costs and red tape associated with installing a residential solar PV system in Nova Scotia,” said Nicholas Gall, Director of Distributed Energy Resources at CanREA, “and that reducing these barriers could help increase solar PV uptake and create more jobs in the solar sector.”

CanREA commissioned HES PV, a leading Canadian solar PV system consultant and equipment supplier. Its survey of Nova Scotia companies found that solar equipment or hardware make up 55% of the cost while the “soft costs” (related to business processes, permits, inspections and financing) account for the remaining 45% paid by consumers. 

For example, there are long waits for Nova Scotia Power to approve plans for solar installations before the work can begin, as well as a second wait for inspection after the work is complete. CanREA’s Nick Gall says most provinces require only one approval. 

Solar Nova Scotia surveyed its members last month and found the average wait for inspection was three months before proceeding with a solar installation. Nova Scotia Power senior media relations officer Jacqueline Foster says the company is working to catch up with the demand.

“We have seen an unprecedented increase of interconnection requests, mostly solar, due to the ongoing interest and uptake of the net metering program and continue to process those requests.  Some require engineering design work, meter installations and other equipment upgrades to ensure safe and reliable installations at each site which can take time to organize and expedite.  COVID created additional constraints to complete the work in a timely manner.”

Based on the results of its Solar Friendly Communities study, CanREA recommends the following actions:

  • Reduce the cost for building and electrical permits and grid interconnection related to solar installations;
  • Improve solar financing programs through lower interest rates and longer payback periods (Gall notes the BC government dropped the provincial portion of the GST on solar equipment);
  • Improve solar education and awareness among homeowners and municipal staff (to reduce time and effort required by installers to explain solar PV technology and net metering);
  • Identify municipal solar PV strategies through planning, zoning, land-use policies and public education

“At this moment, the biggest concern among our member companies is the wait times for inspections from Nova Scotia Power,” said Dave Brushett with Solar Nova Scotia. “We support the recommendations of the CanREA report, particularly the need for more public education. We urge the province to adopt policies that will help grow the industry. We would like to see the Community Solar and Commercial Solar programs announced by the previous Liberal government get going now that the consultation has ended.”

The Ikea factor

The commercial solar program announced by the Rankin government last spring would increase the amount of electricity individual businesses could generate from solar. They are currently limited to 100 kw, a ridiculously low amount of energy considering the rooftop panels on the big blue IKEA store at Dartmouth Crossing can generate close to 900 kw. 

Nova Scotia Power will install solar systems at two manufacturing companies and one research facility in January as part of the Smart Grid pilot.

The solar panels on the Ikea store in Dartmouth. Photo: NSCC

Meanwhile, many First Nations in Nova Scotia have been leaders in installing solar panels on buildings in their communities. The Community Solar program introduced through an amendment to the Electricity Act would encourage more groups and communities to add solar to existing buildings or incorporate solar technology in new builds to reduce power bills.

The Houston government has yet to say when these programs will get off the drawing board, perhaps because the Utilities and Review Board has yet to approve a price for the solar energy that these projects will generate. 

And despite challenges associated with a lot of older houses, the province appears to have a lot of the right stuff that could help reduce carbon emissions with a more aggressive development of solar energy. 

“Nova Scotia has the One Of The Best Rebates in the country and Better Sun Exposure than Germany,” trumpets the website for a solar installation company called Stanton Solar. “The net metering program offered by NS Power allows you to stay connected to the utility and use the grid as your battery. If your solar system produces more energy than you use at any one time, the un-used electricity will flow onto the local grid for others to use and you get a 1:1 credit. If you produce more than you use, then once a year they will send you money. Imagine the utility PAYING YOU!”

Solar still a bit player

Of course if businesses and homeowners start to generate a lot more of their own energy, that could lead to lower sales and potentially lower profits for Nova Scotia Power and its shareholders. 

It’s worth noting that although the cost of large-scale solar arrays has come down in past 10 years, Nova Scotia Power’s long term plan to replace fossil fuels with renewable sources does not envision solar becoming a major player in the province’s energy mix until about 2043. 

“Wind is a huge component, hydro is a huge component including imports, biomass is a component,” said Nova Scotia Power’s Shawn Connell. “When we talk about the Integrated Resource Plan and the most important items to get to net zero, Nova Scotia Power thinks solar is a key component of that. But solar doesn’t show up to as big an extent as wind because we need the most generation in the winter. Generally, we need the most power on winter mornings and evenings when the sun doesn’t shine but the wind does sometimes blow.” 

Currently in Nova Scotia, only 1% of the energy we use to make electricity comes from the sun. With BC burning and flooding, it’s no surprise that province and Alberta are Canadian leaders in developing solar power. Surely, it’s time for a vulnerable province on the East Coast that burns coal and pays the highest power rates in the country to ramp up its efforts.

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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  1. I have also heard that some home insurance companies are reluctant to provide a policy when a net metering solar system is installed.