John Bocock's family used to milk cows on his farm in this pale yellow barn.
It was built in 1947, Bocock says, and was one of the first loose-housing barns in the province — the cows could walk around on an elevated platform while being milked instead of being held in one place. "Dad had a bad back, so the idea of having a cow up high so he didn't have to bend over appealed to him."
Now, instead of milking cows, Bocock is using the barn to milk the sun. He installed 16 grid-connected solar electric modules on its roof this week to support renewable energy production — one of the largest such installations in Sturgeon County.
Bocock says he got interested in renewable power when he learned that one of the routes for the Heartland Transmission Project power line could run through the centre of his farm. (That route was later dropped.) He later heard a talk by Enmax CEO Gary Holden at the University of Alberta suggesting that those lines would not be needed if more power was made locally.
That prompted him to invest in solar power. "If you're going to be against something," he says, "you better figure out what the alternative is. The alternative, in my mind, is for individuals and industry to create more electricity on site so we don't need all these massive power lines."
John Kristensen, vice-president of Responsible Electricity Transmission for Albertans, agreed with Bocock's position. "The closer you get generation of electricity to where it's needed, the fewer power lines you need," he says.
The Alberta Electric System Operator has argued that more lines will be needed to accommodate future electricity demand and renewable power generation. As renewable power is not always generated when and where it's needed, more lines would be needed to shuttle it to the appropriate place.
Solar power has long proved popular on farms in the form of solar-powered water pumps and electric fences, says Mike Hittinger of the Northwest Alliance Conservation Initiative. Farmers often need these devices in remote locations, and it's easier to put in a solar panel than to run wires to them.
Interest in grid-connected panels is growing, he continues, but is still in its infancy. "We get a lot of people calling saying, 'How can I get totally off the grid with solar power?'" You'd need a lot of solar modules to do that, he notes, so he tells most people to get a few and stay hooked into the grid.
It's much easier to set up renewable power in the country than the city, says Andy Smith, chair of the Solar Energy Society of Alberta. You have the space to build wind turbines and to place solar modules at ground level, where they can be adjusted to better catch the sun, he said.
Bocock says his 3.4-kilowatt system will meet about 15 per cent of his farm's electricity needs (the farm has four houses and a workshop) and prevent about two car's worth of greenhouse gas emissions a year. It also means he won't need to buy a new transformer.
The system cost about $20,000, he continues, which he doesn't expect to get back any time soon. "It's a matter of conviction as it is of cost." Solar would be much more affordable in Alberta if the province started charging the full environmental cost of electricity production, he adds.
Alberta should tap its wind and solar energy to move away from coal-fired power, Kristensen says. "It's amazing the amount of electricity they can produce."
New homebuilders should look at solar power as a way to live off-grid, Bocock says. "You can do your heat with geothermal and generate [your own] power."