Store It Up: Batteries Becoming the New Normal and Improving Residential Solar Systems

Photo by miEnergy.

There is only one shadow being cast over the bright future promised by solar power, the obvious fact that the sun does not always shine. Fortunately, the solution is as simple as the problem, store the energy being generated so it can be used later.

Homeowners who already own or are looking to install solar panels on their rooftops are now able to connect new battery storage options to their residential energy system. It provides backed up electricity that can be utilized at night or during power outages.

Phil Foster, engineer and director of Rock Paper Sun Ltd, a Saskatoon-based company designing and installing renewable energy solutions says solar-plus-storage systems are “in a way” where solar began.

Battery system. Photo provided by Rock Paper Sun.

“The technology has been around for a long time to do off-grid solar energy systems, but they were very expensive and typically done for remote locations where it was hard to get a connection to the grid,” Foster says.

Throughout the thirteen years Foster has been in business he has witnessed the popularization of residential solar systems as a result of the technology becoming “four to five times cheaper” and renewable energy entering the mainstream.

Now he is seeing the rapidly evolving solar-plus-storage market of new maintenance-free lithium-ion batteries with longer lifespans and integrated technologies taking off as well. “Typical battery systems we’ve installed in the past use separate components from different manufacturers and all the pieces don’t communicate with each other very well,” Foster says. “Whereas, the trend that is happening is solar inverter manufacturers are bundling these components together into a fully integrated system and one of the benefits of that is you get very clever battery management.”

These new battery systems go beyond just storing backup energy by offering new features such as smartphone applications that allow users to monitor how much energy their home is producing and consuming in real time. Foster says the solar-plus-storage system installed in his own home includes a smart “storm prediction” feature which monitors weather data and will ramp up energy storage in preparation for possible power outages.

Foster also believes solar-plus-storage systems benefit homeowners in other ways too. In 2019, SaskPower relaunched its Net Metering Program, a billing mechanism allowing customers to receive credit for the excess power they contribute to the provincial grid.1 Foster says the increased “self-consumption” batteries allowed is now an advantage because the updated program reduced the payback rate by about half of its previous iteration.

“You don’t lose the value of the energy you’ve created because you’re not exporting it to the grid anymore and by keeping it within your own property, you’re getting the full value of it rather than a reduced rate,” he says.

Kevin Bergeron, president & CEO of miEnergy, a leading renewable energy solutions provider says solar-plus-storage systems do benefit homeowners creating energy “but it doesn’t solve the whole scenario of not having a one-to-one net metering program like most other places in the world.”

MiEnergy has installed over 1700 projects across Western Canada and Bergeron believes that the environmental and social benefits are “extremely important” but the “primary driver” for people adopting any renewable energy technology right now is the economic savings.

“When we saw the economics for solar hit the point where it was cheaper to install a solar system and generate your own power than it was to buy from utility, that’s really where that demand curve just started to skyrocket,” Bergeron says.

“And I think when we hit that tipping point with home battery systems and we’re probably not too far from there, then we’re going to see that demand skyrocket too.”

He identified another “secondary benefit” driving consumer demand as the value a residential solar system adds to a property’s value. For this reason, Bergeron says the Home Energy Loan Program being developed by the City of Saskatoon to finance energy efficient retrofits and energy generation on residential properties is a “positive thing for everybody involved.”2

“It certainly eliminates a barrier for folks that may not be able to afford the capital cost of installing a system upfront, and it also ties the value of that solar project to the property instead of the individuals, so it definitely helps, and we’ve seen those programs in other jurisdictions be really successful,” Bergeron says.

In addition to the residential systems miEnergy is installing the company was the subcontractor selected by Saturn Power to build Saskatchewan’s first utility-scale solar generation project. Bergeron says being chosen was “extremely important” and believes renewable energy presents a “tremendous opportunity” for all parties involved in the transition.3 “I think there’s definitely a solution where government, utility, private industry, residents, and individuals can work together to optimize the energy industry to make sure that it’s a win-win for everybody involved.”

1Net Metering Program, SaskPower, https://www.saskpower.com/Our-Power-Future/Powering-2030/Generating-Power-as-an-Individual/Using-the-Power-You-Make/Net-Metering
2Home Energy Loan Program (HELP), City of Saskatoon, https://www.saskatoon.ca/engage/home-energy-loan-program-help
3Highfield Solar Project, SaskPower, https://www.saskpower.com/Our-Power-Future/Infrastructure-Projects/Construction-Projects/Current-Projects/Highfield-Solar-Project