Robyn Brown has been walking on sunshine since she adopted solar power for her Dartmouth home.

In 2022, she purchased 23 panels and they were installed on the roof. In September, they started generating energy that now power her home’s heating, cooling and lighting systems and her electric car.

“Not only am I offsetting my carbon footprint for my house, but also with my driving, which is really cool,” the high school teacher said with a smile.

She expects her move to a solar system to become financially beneficial, too. The switch cost her $21,000 after rebates, but with next to no power bill every month and a program that allows her to be paid for surplus energy she produces, she expects it will take eight and a half years from the installation to pay off the system.

Brown is among the 1,965 Nova Scotians who installed net-metered solar systems in 2022, according to Nova Scotia Power’s 2022 Net Metering Report, which is produced annually for the Utility and Review Board.

Net metering is a billing mechanism for clients who generate their own electricity. Most of these customers have no battery to store electricity, but their system is connected to the electrical grid. On days when a participant’s production exceeds their own usage, the extra energy goes into the grid and the customer is given credit for it. At other times, when participants produce less energy than they need, they draw power from the grid that they have to pay for. Their final bill is reduced, however, by the credits they earned when producing extra.

At the end of last year the company had 6,053 such “customer-generators”. And according to data from the Net Metering Report, the number of new connections has been rising consistently every year, with 2022 being a record year.

Together, all these customers’ generators have a capacity of about 52,000 kilowatts, about a tenth of the capacity of the Tufts Cove generating station in Dartmouth, with its iconic red and white striped smokestacks.

Overall, in 2022, customer-generators have been productive: in total, they received about $375,000 for their surplus power.

There is also one more option that was offered to customers last year, to opt out of the net metering program. In April 2022, a new self-generation option was introduced to allow any customer to install their own renewable energy generator or battery storage device with a small capacity of 27 kW or less, enough to cover most households’ consumption. They can do so without entering a contractual agreement with Nova Scotia Power. In 2022, 340 made this choice.

High energy prices, rebate programs factors for consumer adoption, expert says

The new option, along with financing and rebates from municipal, provincial and federal governments, expanded marketing from the solar industry and significant savings, are factors driving up the popularity of solar installations, the report says.

But the high electricity costs in the province and consumers’ environmental consciousness are also two big factors, said Patrick Bateman, a consultant active within Nova Scotia’s clean energy sector.

“That creates the right conditions for the consumers, and then when you layer on top of that the various policies and programs governments are introducing, that can really accelerate consumer adoption,” he said.

That is something on which Efficiency Nova Scotia has been keeping tabs. An independent agency established by legislation, it administers provincial rebates to encourage Nova Scotians switch to renewable energy. Janet Tobin, communications lead, said the number of new solar customers has risen sharply since 2018, which is when the SolarHomes Program began. Since then, 4,636 customers have opted for the rebate, with a dip in 2022.

“When the program first began, the rebate levels and the incentive levels were much higher. They were taken down appropriately over the past four years to help build consistency across the industry,” she said.

In May 2021, the federal government launched Greener Homes, a program that provides a 10-year 0 per cent loan up to $40,000 and an additional incentive up to $5,000, while the SolarHomes program provides up to $3,000.

“Homeowners can only participate in one of the two programs, so most (now) opt for the federal program,” said Dave Brushett, chair of the Solar Nova Scotia Society, a non-for-profit organization that aims to promote the adoption of solar energy.

That is not something Tobin sees as an issue, since the Greener Homes program can also be used for other purposes than switching to solar.

“I don’t see Nova Scotians getting solar (more slowly) anytime soon,” she said.

Sunny ways ahead for solar power in Nova Scotia

In the net metering report, Nova Scotia Power foresees it will be gaining 2,500 new net metered customers in 2023. But that won’t be the end of it.

“The growth that you’ve seen to date is strong growth, but you haven’t seen nothing yet,” Bateman anticipates.

As the province aims to get 80 per cent of its electricity from renewables by 2030, Bateman thinks solar has a role to play. He foresees that by 2030, the cumulative install capacity for customer-sited projects could exceed 200,000 KW, which is four times the current total capacity of net metering customers.

One of the factors that could be a game changer is Nova Scotia Power’s new commercial net metering program, which is currently being reviewed by the Utility and Review Board. It would allow commercial customers producing energy on their own sites, such as factories, manufacturing facilities or office buildings, to have a capacity of 1,000 KW per client, 10 times more than the current cap.

“That really creates interesting opportunities for larger electricity customers,” Bateman said, adding he hopes the new program will be up and running by the end of this summer.

“A very large untapped market”

This would help tap into a “very large untapped market,” Bateman said, as 121 net metered solar customers are listed as commercial. This accounts for about three per cent of the 6,053 customers.

Tobin said one of the reasons why there have been so few commercial customers is that there haven’t been rebate programs that are attractive enough for commercial setups, which are often larger and significantly more expensive than residential ones.

“Our funding comes to us from external sources,” she said. “Commercial solar just isn’t something that has been a priority for funders at this point”

Tobin says there are also some commercial clients that prefer to stay off grid and that are not accounted for in Nova Scotia Power’s net metering report. For example, the Dartmouth IKEA store has its own system with a capacity of 850 KW. In an interview with The Chronicle Herald, facilities manager Jason Lehman explained that remaining off-grid was a decision influenced by Nova Scotia’s 100 kW cap, and that if it wasn’t for that limit, it could feed hundreds of kilowatts into the grid.

In the future, Tobin hopes there will be more generous incentives for the commercial sector.

“It’s not that people don’t want to do it; they want to do it because it makes their home more comfortable, because they get a lower energy bill (and) they want to do it for the environment, for the common good. But we’re still where we are at with the economy, and having incentive and rebates is a really, really, really helpful tool to encourage people to do more.”

In Dartmouth, Robyn Brown also sees another reason, giving Nova Scotia Power “as little money as possible.”

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