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Energy management Article | 10-minute read

How to install the right solar energy system for your business

A custom solar setup can power your business and help cut costs and carbon emissions
woman looking at a solar panel in a field

Not so long ago, the idea of using solar power for all your energy needs was the stuff of science fiction movies. Even in the early 2000s, there were hardly enough solar panels in the entire world to equip even the most modest of solar farms you might see today in Canada.

Fast forward two decades, and there are now more than 43,000 solar energy installations on homes and businesses across the country. David Kelly, CEO of SkyFire Energy, a solar construction and engineering firm, thinks the explanation for this is fairly simple: prices for solar-generating equipment have plummeted by 80% since 2010. Today, the technology is more accessible, more efficient and more widely accepted than ever before.

Solar can help your business cut costs and decrease its environmental footprint. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you switch to solar.

1. Calculate your energy use

Before you invest in a futuristic solar setup, assess your current operations to find opportunities to reduce your energy use.

“‘Negawatts’ are often cheaper than megawatts,” says Kelly.

First, conduct an energy audit to establish your energy consumption baseline.
Next, find ways to cut back.

What does this look like? Try simple solutions like adding automatic timers to light fixtures. Or emphasize behavioural change, like encouraging staff to power down their computers when they leave work. These are easy but efficient ways to save energy (and therefore money).

Once you’ve done an audit and identified easy changes to increase your business’s energy efficiency, then you will have a clearer sense of what size of solar energy system can and should be implemented.

2. Figure out how to meet the needs of your business

Thanks to the rapidly falling costs of solar, it has become a viable and economical energy-generation option for many individuals and businesses in Canada. However, there are still several variables that will influence how much you can expect to save by switching.

  • Space. Solar module set-ups require sun-facing surfaces like rooftops, external walls or parking lots. If your company doesn’t own its building or outdoor space, or does not have a lease agreement that would allow for solar panels to be installed, then solar is not a viable option at your current location unless you can negotiate with the building owners.
  • Price. Your province and your power provider’s rates can heavily influence how much you can expect to save on energy by switching to solar. Energy rates vary widely across Canada. For instance, Quebec and British Columbia can often offer renewable electricity at a lower cost than a fully self-sustaining solar system. That’s not to say that adding solar modules isn’t a good idea in those jurisdictions. They can still prove useful during grid power outages with battery storage, or to help you own your energy needs.
  • Capacity. How much energy you generate will be tied to your available space, electrical system and budget. That’s why it’s important to know how much energy you use now, so your installation can fit your needs. Upgrades to your building’s structure and electrical system may be required in order to support the added weight and electrical output that comes with a solar power system.

3. Start designing your solar energy system

Once you have a sense of your energy needs and the variables that help maximize space, price and capacity, you’re ready to start designing your solar installation. Companies like SkyFire Energy use detailed drone mapping, engineering and architectural expertise to create optimized solar systems.

Customizing your installation

There’s no one-size-fits-all solar solution. Understanding where solar panels will work best on your particular building will help you get the most out of your investment.

Solar modules can be subtle or showy, depending on where you install them. Kelly says some clients seek to hide their panels in the design of their buildings, using modules as cladding, or even disguising panels as window awnings, such as what SkyFire Energy does for its own Calgary headquarters. Placing the solar panels where they can attract attention is a way to show that a business is environmentally mindful. Still, other customers are just focused on the energy production and opt for more straightforward roof-mounted arrays.

Selecting your modules

The cost of solar modules will vary depending on the materials they’re built from, their size and their efficiency.

To get a sense of their annual power bills, Kelly recommends that clients divide the cost of their solar modules over 25 years. That’s because most modules are under warranty for that long and can produce energy for anywhere between 25 and 40 years.

Keeping the power flowing all year round

Ironically, the first industry to get on the solar bandwagon in Canada was the oil and gas sector in northern Alberta, Kelly says. To power well sites or pipeline monitoring, energy companies use solar energy systems even during the cold, dark and snowy months.

Maintenance for solar modules in winter is straightforward. If you’re living in an area with significant snowfall, then you may have to occasionally brush the array off. Some solar clients may even opt to install their modules on articulating bases that tilt, so the snow slides off.

Kelly says ground-mount arrays can also self-clean in snowy environments. The backsides of solar modules get more sun exposure in winter than in summer, because of the sunlight bouncing off the snow on the ground or roof and then back up to the panel. This warms the device (and helps it generate energy), which then melts the snow off the top.

Nevertheless, solar energy systems do see a dip in energy production during the winter. To avoid going powerless for several hours per day, most clients remain grid-tied, which means they draw from the main utility’s power lines while their own systems are dormant, or they can invest in a power bank battery to store energy generated on productive days.

There’s quite a bit of seasonal variability in solar production on a grid-tied system. But if you look at the overall annual production, switching to solar still makes a lot of sense.

4. Thinking ahead about recycling your solar panels

Because of their long lifespans (between 25 and 40 years), many of the first-generation solar panels are still powering homes, businesses and communities in Canada. This means there is not much material for recycling plants to deal with at the moment, keeping the costs of recycling the modules high.

Still, Canadian recycling facilities do exist for solar panels, and they are honing techniques today to recover as much material from panels as possible. As much as 99% of a solar panel is recyclable, but globally, few are currently being repurposed. Kelly predicts this will change when the first wave of first-generation modules gets decommissioned.

Ready to flip the switch today?

Solar technology is no longer just a science experiment, but a tried and tested method to economically produce the power you need in an environmentally responsible way.

With the right planning, there are many advantages for Canadian small and medium-sized business owners looking to generate their own solar-powered electricity. You can cut costs, minimize your carbon footprint and futureproof your business.

BDC and companies like SkyFire Energy can help you access financing and advice so that you can make an informed decision if you choose to switch to solar.

Need more information? See how switching to solar compares to your existing energy bill and carbon footprint.

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