How Solar Power Works In Canada
Congratulations! You’ve found the ultimate guide for learning about how solar in Canada for 2018!
This page covers the basic technical information about how solar power works in Canada and answers frequently asked questions about solar system set-up, solar panel efficiency, and need-to-know information.
If you prefer to read about rebates, utility policies, performance payment programs, and other policy-related information about installing a solar system in your home province – then be sure to check out your province’s complete solar power guide (another page).
Otherwise, continue to learn about how solar power works in Canada by reading this page from top to bottom, or by selecting your preferred section by clicking on it below:
Solar Power Components
At the most basic level, every solar system is composed of five unique components:
Output: Power (Watts)
Efficiency: 16% – 22%
Materials Cost: $0.70-$1.10/Watt
The first and most obvious component of every solar system is the panels. Solar panels work by converting light (electromagnetic radiation) into electricity (electrical potential energy) at an efficiency of around 20%. However, the electricity produced by solar panels is “Direct Current” (DC) and must be converted into “Alternating Current” (AC) before it can be used by home appliances or be sent back to the energy grid. For this reason, a second piece of equipment is always needed when generating electricity from solar panels called an inverter.
Solar panels are typically rated in terms of their peak power output – which is the maximum amount of power that the panel is able to produce under ideal conditions. This is also referred to as the ‘size’ of the panel and it ranges from 250 to 400 Watts for most commercially available panels. The higher the power rating of the panel, the less panels you will need to use to offset your energy usage.
Almost all solar panels used in 2018 for residential systems are composed of silicon, including the two most popular types on the market:
Monocrystalline panels are more efficient and tend to perform better in high heat and low light conditions, making them far superior to polycrystalline panels in terms of performance. They also tend to be more visually appealing because of their black appearance (but they can also be blue). Polycrystalline panels can only be blue and are less efficient, but their benefit is that they tend to be less expensive.
Got more questions about solar panels? Ask us by commenting at the bottom of the page.
Output: Power (Watts)
Efficiency: 90% – 99%
Materials Cost: $0.20-$0.50/Watt
Inverters are need to convert the electricity produced by solar panels from Direct Current (DC) to Alternating Current (AC). This is needed because Alternating Current is the only form of electricity that can used with modern appliances and on the energy grid here in Canada.
There are several types of inverters technologies that Canadian installers will use with your solar system:
|Microinverters||Most Efficient, common for roof-mounted systems|
|String Inverters||Less Efficient, common for ground-mounted systems|
|Power Optimizers||Add-on technology, used with string inverters|
|Smart Modules||Add-on technology, used with string or microinverters|
Microinverters work by converting electricity from DC to AC at each individual panel – this makes microinverters more efficienct than string inverters if you expect shading on your system or if your system faces more than one direction (see inverter efficiency section for details).
Converting power at the panel level also allows you to monitor individual panel performance – an important consideration if you want to be able to quickly identify reversible shading (leaves, bird droppings, etc.). Most microinverters will also allow you to track performance in real time using a mobile or desktop app and send you email alerts if power output drops below the expected range for an extended period of time.
Individual panel tracking is also great for taking full advantage of your 25-year power output guarantee. Not only will you be able to easily identify which panels are performing sub-optimally, but so will your installers. This makes changing a problematic panel a quick and easy process.
The downside of microinverters is their relative price and long-term reliability. Because so many individual units are needed (one per panel or one per every two panels), their total cost tends to be more expensive and the chances of one failing over the lifetime of your system is also increased.
String inverters work similar to how they sound: a series of panels are tied together in a ‘string’, and then the combined power from the panels is converted from DC to AC together.
String inverters are best suited for panels that are all facing the same direction AND if no shading is expected (see inverter efficiency section for details) – this is most often the case for ground-mounted systems.
The main benefit of using string inverters is that they are cheap, mostly because less equipment is needed. However, you lose the ability to track the performance of individual panels (like you can with microinverters), making it difficult to isolate a problematic panel should performance decline unexpectedly.
Since the power from all panels is combined before it’s converted from DC to AC, the power lines have a very high voltage which may make them unsafe for certain on-roof applications. Ground mounted systems, again, are the most suitable application because power lines are typically buried and high voltage is not an issue.
Power optimizers work by ‘conditioning’ the electricity of each individual panel (matching the output voltage of the panel with the voltage of the entire string) before power is converted from DC to AC at the string inverter. They are often used with string inverters to ‘regain’ several important benefits that are common with microinverters:
- Power optimizers are used on every panel, so you can track individual panel power output
- Power optimizers are suitable for use when when panels are facing in more than one direction or if shading is expected
Power optimizers may also provide some additional efficiency benefits (depending on the system) that microinverters cannot due to the conditioned electricity and the possibility of the accompanying string inverter being installed in a cooler location than the roof. See the inverter efficiency section for more details on inverter efficiency (this page).
Power optimizers also tend to make the system safer than just using string inverters alone because they can shut down individual panels in case of overheating or voltage spikes. However, power lines still remain at relatively high voltage which may make then unsuitable for some on-roof applications.
The final term that you might hear is ‘smart module’ – smart modules are solar panels with power optimizers built into them. These power optimizers can be used with both string and micro inverters.
If you use smart modules with a string inverter then you will ‘regain’ all of the benefits discussed in the previous section. If you use smart modules with microinverters then you will the gain safety benefits discussed in the previous section. Smart modules are still a new and relatively rare technology.
Energy Storage Device
Output: Energy (Watt-hours)
Round Trip Efficiency: ~90%
Materials Cost: ~$0.75/Watt-hour
A third component that’s necessary for all solar systems is an energy storage device. Energy storage is necessary because solar systems will often produce more energy than is used at any given time. Excess energy produced during the day can be stored for use at night, and theoretically, excess energy produced during the summer can be stored for use in the winter.
And while a ‘battery’ is likely the first storage solution that comes to mind, there is actually a storage solution that’s currently more popular in Canada: using the energy grid.
Energy Grid (“on-grid”)
Often times, people don’t think of remaining connected to the grid as a storage solution – but in fact, that’s exactly the purpose of the grid! All excess energy from your solar system (produced during the day and during the summer) is sent back to the grid and credited to your utility billing account.
These credits can then be applied against your energy usage during periods when your solar system is producing less than is needed (during the night and during the winter). This process is called ‘Net Metering’ and serves the exact same function as a battery back-up.
This is also why utility companies still make you pay your base monthly fee when you remain connected to the grid even if your net energy usage is zero – because you’re using their infrastructure for energy storage!
Batteries (“on-grid” or “off-grid”)
Using a battery for energy backup is still relatively uncommon here in Canada. This is mostly because battery systems have not yet caught up to the significant improvements in solar panel technology and because batteries still remain relatively expensive.
However, with the advent of electric vehicles – battery technology is due to improve rapidly into the foreseeable future.
There are several benefits of using a battery with your solar power system:
- HUGE savings if you’re on Time-of-Use (TOU) rates by using energy from your battery during peak demand
- Store energy to charge your Electric Vehicle (EV)
- Store energy for backup in case of a power outage
- Store energy, then sell it back to the grid during peak demand (future possibility)
- Peer-to-peer renewable energy trading (future possibility)
It should be noted that most people who invest in a battery storage device like the Tesla Powerwall or the ElectrIQ Battery still remain connected to the energy grid. This is because most batteries can only store a couple days worth of energy – meaning your solar system would produce more energy than you could store in the summer and likely leave you with a shortage during the winter.
Therefore, investing in battery packs to go ‘off-grid’ is only useful if the cost of trenching a new power line to your acreage far exceeds the cost of several battery packs. Using a battery while remaining connected to the grid is currently the only smart choice for most homeowners.
Quick links: See the ‘Performance Payments’ section your Province’s Complete Solar Power Guide (another page) for more discussion about Net Metering.
Function: Fixing Solar Panels
Materials Cost: $0.20-$0.50/watt
Another component of every solar system is the ‘racking’. Simply put, the racking holds the solar panels in place over their entire operational lifespan. And depending on whether you’re putting your panels on the roof or on the ground (we also heard a rumor that you could put them on the water), different types of racking is used.
Racking for roofs is fairly standard and most installation companies use similar materials, varying only on the type, shape, and slope of the roof.
Angled, Shingled Roof
Flat, Shingled Roof
Racking can be procured for both angled (even 12-12, 45°) and flat roofs, as well as for shingled, concrete, and metal ones.
- On concrete roofs, racking is typically ballasted (with concrete)
- On shingled roofs, racking is typically screwed directly into the trusses
- On metal roofs, racking is fastened directly to the sheet metal or screwed into underlying wooden trusses if present
Notice any potential issues? You got it – water leakage! Anytime you drill holes into your roof, you run the risk of leaking water (especially on a metal roof because of seasonal contraction and expansion of materials). This is why it’s important to make sure that your installers are using proper sealant. Most installers will also offer a workmanship warranty that covers any defects as a result of installation, including leakage.
As a general rule, there is racking that exists for every roof regardless of its type, shape, or slope. Got more questions? Ask us in the comments at the bottom of this page.
Wooden Racking, Wooden Piles
Steel Racking, Concrete Ballasts
Steel Racking, Driven Steel Piles
When it comes to ground mounted panels, there are a variety of racking types that can be used, steel and aluminum being the most common. Mounting panels on the ground is generally more expensive (upfront only, see system set-up efficiency section for details) than mounting them on the roof because extra materials must be used to keep the panels fixed in place. Weighted ballasts (often concrete) are used when piling is not possible (rocky or year-round frozen terrain), but piling is the most common and preferred way to fix the panels to the ground.
Wooden racking is only used in rare circumstances (likely when the homeowner wants to build it themselves to save costs) because it likely wont last the operational lifespan of the panels! Also, installers usually stipulate that their workmanship warranty is valid only when they do the complete installation, so building your own racking could invalidate the installer’s warranty.
Similar to roof racking, there is a racking solution for every proposed ground mounted system. Designs are typically engineer-certified and approved based on the underlying geological formation, the expected wind speeds, and any loads due to snow. Advanced ground mounted technologies also include sun tracking and seasonally adjusted arrays.
Quick links: System Efficiency: Ground vs Roof Mount (this page), see the ‘Basics’ section your Province’s Complete Solar Power Guide (another page) for more discussion about the benefits and trade-offs between ground and roof mounted systems.
Function: Net Metering
Materials Cost: Varies by Utility
The final unique piece of equipment that you’ll need for your solar system is a bi-directional meter (often called a ‘net meter’). It should be noted that a bi-directional meter is only needed if you choose to remain connected to the energy grid – but 95% of the time, this is the case!
A bi-directional meter allows you to track both the energy that you supply to the grid when you’re producing excess (during the day and summer), as well as the energy you use from the grid when your energy production is low (during the night and winter).
Note: Energy produced by your solar system is usually (check with your installer) routed to your house first before being sent to the grid as excess.
A bi-directional meter is also necessary to participate in your utility’s ‘net metering program’, something that’s currently offered in every province and territory in Canada (except Nunavut). Depending on your power provider, a bi-directional meter will be supplied for free (most provinces) or for a fee of up to $500 (Saskatchewan).
Quick links: See the ‘Performance Payments’ section your Province’s Complete Solar Power Guide (another page) for more discussion about Net Metering.
Solar Power Need To Know
There are several different types of warranties that may be offered with your solar system, both by the manufacturer of the system components and by the installation company that you’re working with.
Here are the important ones to look for:
Solar Panel Warranties (manufacturer)
Power Output Warranty
All solar panels should come with a 25-year power output warranty – an indication how much the panel’s performance is expected to degrade over time. For example, after 25 years, LG solar panels are guaranteed to produce 87% of the power that they produced on day one (this is typical). If expected power production is not met, LG will replace or repair the panel at no cost to you.
Keep in mind that 25 years years is a long period for a warranty. Manufacturers are certainly confident in their products, but you may want to seriously evaluate whether or not the company will even be around in 25 years. Big names like LG, Panasonic, and SunPower are all relatively safe bets – but newer companies may not be.
All solar panels will also come with a product warranty that covers manufacturing defects. In some cases these warranties are offered only for 10 years, but most reputable names (again: LG, Panasonic, SunPower) are all offering 25-year product warranties. If a manufacturing defect is found, they will replace or repair the panel at no cost to you.
Your installer should provide you with both the power output and product warranty letters provided by the manufacturers. For example, here is what the LG warranty letter looks like (opens in new tab).
Inverter Warranty (manufacturer)
Similar to panels, inverters should also be covered under a product warranty program. However, 10 to 12 years is the standard warranty period and a 25 year warranty is usually only available with an upgrade.
Inverter warranties are extremely important because it’s actually more likely that an inverter will stop working than it is that a panel stops working. Installers should (again) provide you with a letter of warranty directly from the manufacturer like this one from SolarEdge (opens in new tab).
Workmanship Warranty (installer)
A workmanship warranty is the most common type of warranty offered by installers. Since the equipment you’re using is made (and guaranteed) to last 25 years, you’ll want to be sure that the quality of the installation is high enough to support this time-frame.
Most installers will offer a workmanship warranty between 5 and 15 years, while some will offer none at all. As a general rule, the warranty should cover any system defects due to labour as well as any roof leakage due to the installation process (leaking is rare, but possible).
A signed warranty certificate should always be procured by the installer upon completion of the job.
Power Production Warranty (installer)
Another warranty offered by some installers is a power production warranty. This warranty is a guarantee by the installer that your system will produce a predetermined amount of energy over a specified time-frame (often 10 years).
This type of warranty arises because installers often use different calculations to estimate energy production. Some installers will inflate their numbers to make the system appear better than it actually is (this is where the Power Production Warranty really comes in handy) while others will deflate their numbers so that you require more panels than is actually required.
If you system doesn’t produce as much energy as the installer guarantees, they will typically pay out the difference in electricity at the current retail rate. Make sure to clarify these details before signing!
If you require a second opinion on your system proposal, please simply email a copy to [email protected] (email link) and we will assist you. We are currently reviewing proposals from any installer in Canada.
Roof & House Condition
If your house is old and your roof is sagging – you’re probably not a good candidate for solar. It’s the same with your shingles – if they’ve been on your roof for 15+ plus years, you should probably consider replacing them before installing solar.
Remember, solar systems are typically guaranteed to produce energy for 25 years and often last 35 years. Your roof condition is as important for your system as your foundation is for your house. It should be able to support your panels for at least their useful operating lifespan.
Timelines & Paperwork
Installing a solar system in Canada typically involves several parties (and their associated paperwork) including the installer, municipality, utility, and financer. For this reason, and because of our Canadian weather, the timeline of any given solar project is an important consideration when thinking about switching to solar.
The first thing to recognize is that most ground mount systems can be installed during the winter as long as the piling is completed before the ground is frozen. However, roof mount systems cannot are usually completed between the months of April to November. This time frame changes slightly depending on the region that you’re living in.
Most installers will also have a good idea when they can complete your installation and some will even estimate an installation date on your system proposal. In most circumstances a roof mount solar systems will take 1-3 days to install and ground mount solar system will take 2-5 days to install, varying on the complexity and size of the project.
Immediately after you sign your system contract, your installer should be completing the necessary paperwork required to proceed with the installation. Your rebate application (if applicable) should also be completed at this time.
Make sure in advance that your installer is in charge of arranging all the necessary paperwork, figuring everything out on your own can be a very large burden.
Paperwork Often Required: System Contract (provided by installer), Net Metering Application (provided and submitted by installer), Rebate Application (provided and submitted by installer), Electrical Permit (completed by electrician), Line Diagram (completed by electrician), Site Map (completed by installer or electrician).
After your system is installed, it doesn’t mean that it can be turned on. In almost all cases your utility (and sometimes your municipality) will need to ‘inspect’ the system first. This can hypothetically happen the same day your installation is complete but often it takes places 1-4 weeks following.
These inspections must be prearranged with the utility and are typically initiated through the Net Metering Application. Sometimes a bi-directional meter must also be installed (if not previously present), this often happens at the same time at the utility inspection.
Policy, Rebates, & Other
Beyond the topics covered on this page, there are a lot of external factors at the provincial and utility level that affect a person’s ability to switch to solar energy. Each province has a different set of policies that govern how and when solar can be connected to the grid, different variable and fixed electricity rates that determine its financial feasibility, as well as different incentives, rebates, and tax credits available for decreasing the upfront costs.
Each province also has different regulations on how much energy you can produce and send back to the grid with your system, different policies on how much you get paid for energy production in excess of your usage (you may not get paid at all), and even different price points charged by installers based on current supply and demand.
Solar Panel Power Canada has ranked every province and territory in Canada on these factors and more. The summation of this province specific information can be found in your complete provincial solar guide.
Choosing a Solar Installation Company
Because Canada is a relatively new market for solar, there are currently no mandatory certifications or training requirements for system designers or installers. This means that homeowners must be extremely diligent when considering their company of choice. At the very least, your installer should have a certified electrician on staff or contract, and have at least one person in-house with Solar PV design and installation training from the Solar Installers Canada (links to another site), the Canadian Solar Institute (links to another site), or NABCEP (links to another site).
Ultimately, choosing an installer is similar to choosing any home services business (like a roofer or landscaper) – you’re looking for a company that offers high quality equipment and services, legitimate experience in the industry, and some sort of warranty on their work.
At Solar Panel Power Canada, we only allow installers on our platform that satisfy the following criteria:
- Verified Google Business Listing
- Verified Facebook Business Page
- At least 5 Positive Facebook/Google Reviews
- 4.5+ Average Rating on Google and Facebook
Support & Reliability
- Human-Answered Phone Number
- Email Reply In Less Than 24 Hours
- User Friendly Website With Real Project Photos
- BBB, CanSIA, or B Corporation registered
In addition, we are currently only accepting applications from installers are licensed and insured, offer a workmanship warranty, and have been in full time business for at least 3 years.
How Solar Power Works in Canada: Summary
In theory, installing a solar system in Canada is a relatively simple task due to the widespread availability of advanced solar technologies. Solar is not only an efficient and reliable energy source but it’s also seen by many homeowners to be a sound financial investment and a way to stop the environmental degradation of our planet.
However, as with any large and long term purchase, there are several important things to keep in mind:
- Not all equipment is made equal.
- Efficiency, reliability, and warranty all vary between panel and inverter types and manufacturers. You may want to compare equipment choices if receiving multiple estimates. Use the resources on this page to help guide your decision.
- Not all systems designs perform equally.
- Your system should be designed and sized by a certified PV design engineer. As discussed in the efficiency sections above, there are several controllable factors that affect your system’s ability to produce a maximal amount of energy.
- Not all companies install the same.
- The day of installation is the most important day of your system’s entire lifespan, 30+ years of energy production depend on it. Make sure your company is qualified to do the job and that they provide you with all applicable warranties.
Summary: Nearly every home in Canada can offset their entire electricity usage by installing a solar system, exceptions exist only for extremely shaded or awkwardly shaped houses. Most solar system components are guaranteed for 25 years (for both product failure and energy output) and will last typically last 30+ years. Canada also receives a fair amount of sunlight and remains relatively cool throughout the year enhancing solar panel efficiency. And it’s for these reasons that we consider Canada to be one of the best Countries in the world for solar power.
If you have questions, feel free to ask in the comments below or email us at [email protected]. If you’re interested in receiving an estimate for your home from a pre-screened installer, click here to go to our Cost Estimate Page.
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