Solar energy feeds only a small portion of the overall energy market in Nova Scotia, but in just a few years, incentives for solar installations have kickstarted a collection of small businesses offering solar energy services, with new opportunities for existing companies.
Journeyman electrician Adam Gervais started Advanced Electric Energy around the time incentives kicked in – the Solar Electricity for Community Buildings pilot in 2017, and the Solar Homes program in 2018 (the latter offering direct rebates on a portion of rooftop systems).
Gervais planned to be offering solar energy options regardless. However, he says the direct rebate for homeowners paired with a listing by Efficiency Nova Scotia as an in-province installer led to customer after customer coming to him.
“There’s a lot of interest behind it,” he recently told Atlantic Business Magazine.
“I’ve built my business completely off the demand for (solar) and the rebates,” he said.
The incentives and demand went hand-in-hand. Incentives reduced the up-front cost for homeowners, shortening the pay-off period for solar hardware, and separately offered better economics for larger projects (smaller than utility scale) through unique power purchase agreements.
The results included new, desired jobs. Gervais said a hiring call by Advanced Electric Energy in 2020 was met with 150 applicants in two weeks.
Condor Electric owner Donnie Dominix started his business in 2018, not long after the solar incentives came into play. He wasn’t aware of the incentives on day one, and said the timing was a lucky break for a fledgling company.
The CSA-certified installer said he started his business out of a desire to empower homeowners in seeing new options and real energy costs. He sees the solar incentives leading settled homeowners to invest, based on the opportunity to save in the long run.
“It would be more of a hard sell if the incentive was not there,” he said.
“But there’s a lot of homeowners taking advantage of the incentive in Nova Scotia.”
The demand is feeding sector growth. According to the province’s Energy department, 12 companies were identified as doing business in rooftop solar in 2016, before the incentives. Today, there are over 60 companies in the province registered with Efficiency Nova Scotia to offer rooftop solar through the Solar Homes program. And while in 2016 there were 89 rooftop solar installs completed under net metering (allowing consumers to offset their existing power cost with power produced from their solar panels), in 2020 there were 1,029 installations.
Beyond the home
Interest in solar beyond individual homes was fed by the now-wrapped Solar Electricity for Community Buildings Program, launched as a three-year pilot program in 2017. It offered the chance for community groups and organizations to install up to 75 kilowatts (kw) of solar generating capacity and sell excess power to their local electric utility under 20-year, power purchase contracts.
Since the return from solar power being sold is better-priced than the cost for standard power, installations not only offset their power use, but can also land greater-than-usual monthly returns, allowing the owners to reinvest and pay down their hardware faster.
The up-front cost is significant. At the same time, there’s some financial flexibility over time through the returns. And there’s the bottom-line expectation of greater value at the end of the day (at the end of the lifespan of the installed equipment), when compared to relying on power from the existing power grid, still partly supplied by energy from fossil fuels.
Applicants for the pilot incentive covered a wide range of power customers and building types, from sports organizations to churches and educational institutions. One successful applicant was Hope for Wildlife – an animal rescue and treatment facility with a public response service, located along Gaetz Lake in Seaforth, about 40 minutes from the centre of Halifax. Founder Hope Swinimer says the organization received about 38,000 calls and texts for advice and assistance in the last year.
On a stormy day last week, after taking a call about an injured dovekie in Eastern Passage, she said personal concerns rather than specifically the incentive first led to her to take a closer look at solar power.
“It’s really a big facility. We have 10 to 12 different buildings. Everything from a veterinary hospital on site, to education facilities,” she said. “And I started to worry. I thought ‘Oh my gosh. It’s growing and growing.’ And it really concerned me when I’d look at the power bills and I’d see the amount of fossil fuels we were consuming.”
Swinimer spoke with friends who had just installed solar at home, then met a staff member of Natural Forces. The company could provide solar options for commercial buildings and multi-building properties.
She priced the options, then factored in the incentive program. She was successful in being approved under the program in 2018 and installed a solar array, estimating offhand now it was an up-front cost of $120,000-$150,000. With support and encouragement from regular donors, she went on to recently install a second and larger solar array, double the size of the first, at an estimated cost of $200,000.
The second installation has been online for about a month now, but Swinimer said there have been occasions when her first array didn’t just offset Hope for Wildlife’s power use, but returned at least $3,000 in one particularly good month under her incentivized sale rate. She believes she can have the latest installation paid off in six to 10 years, depending on continued support.
“That’s why I did it. I’m not going to say I wouldn’t do it (without the incentive), because I’ve always wanted to do it (…) But this certainly made me open my eyes and do it a lot sooner,” she said.
Reached at home, Natural Forces’ vice-president of operations Roby Douglas recalled the Hope for Wildlife projects, and the dozen or so other projects the company has worked, with ties to the incentive program for larger builds. In some cases, Natural Forces was involved from the start, offering front-end engineering and economic evaluations. In other cases, the company would bid on already well-developed projects and work the execution.
Douglas said Natural Forces’ solar side was really born in 2017. New solar incentives timed well with the company’s interest in building out from an established wind power business.
“Without that program, we probably would have never started the (solar) company, to be honest,” he said.
The company watched the rollout of the incentive program in its first year, while building staff competencies with solar training and a series of residential projects, including solar for staff homes, “to get familiar with technology, get familiar with the interconnection requirements, understand potential risks,” he said.
“We decided after seeing how the first round (of the incentive program) went that there was an opportunity for ourselves to use that program to start to build a solar business, specifically in that middle market, the commercial. So not the residential, not the big solar farms, but in the middle with these community buildings,” he said.
The company has been able to scale up from there, partnering on even larger projects, like the Pesâkâstêw Solar Project in Saskatchewan.
And Natural Forces is looking closely as announcements are made on possible new opportunities, like the $69 million, 21-megawatt solar farm and battery storage facility for Summerside, Prince Edward Island, announced in 2020.
“The program the (Nova Scotia) Department of Energy put together was in many ways a launch pad for us to create a business that now has a dozen employees today that are doing commercial and utility-scale solar projects across Atlantic Canada,” Douglas said.
Lessons being learned
In a late January meeting of the legislature’s committee on natural resources and economic development, MLAs heard and discussed the results of the pilot for solar for community buildings. There was open recognition of lessons learned, including noted hurdles for non-profits, down to meeting some of the administrative demands of the pilot, given the volunteer nature of the leadership, restrictions on decision making and typical timing of board meetings.
Even so, Deputy Energy Minister Simon d’Entremont said the community building pilot had a “healthy response.” It translated as 3.8 megawatts-worth of new generation at an average cost of 25 cents per kilowatt hour, and 71 organizations approved for installs during the three-year run.
“That means 71 organizations and communities across the province that were able to add solar energy to the mix and help the province move towards its ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” he said, reiterating Nova Scotia’s goal of hitting a cut of 53 per cent greenhouse gas emissions over 2005 levels by 2030, and reaching “net zero” – being no emissions without equal offsets – by 2050.
D’Entremont highlighted the “more than 50 businesses” now involved in solar energy in Nova Scotia, representing hundreds of jobs.
“The lessons we have learned from this program are impacting how we approach our work to scale up renewable use,” he said.
Some solar additions approved under the pilot program are still being completed, like the latest solar build for the Université Sainte-Anne – being a $300,000 up-front investment on an expected 10-year payback period, as part of the school’s push into renewables.
At the same time, electric companies and community organizations alike are hoping for new incentives to be launched. Neighbourhood organizations and municipalities are in the mix, as shared “solar gardens” get more attention.
The residential rebate program recently got a fresh boost. The province of Nova Scotia has a cap-in-trade system covering GHG emissions that has been feeding a “Green Fund,” available for new investments in efforts to reduce emissions. On February 2, the province issued a news release noting a spend of about $18 million from the fund. It includes $5.5 million over two years for more Solar Homes rebates.
The next print edition of Atlantic Business Magazine will feature more Energy-related stories and information from throughout the Atlantic provinces. It will be available to subscribers beginning March 1, and on newsstands mid-March.