How sun & tech are changing the valley’s energy equation

The installation of solar panels on a UFV roof is expected to pay for itself sooner than expected, in the process demonstrating the increasing financial advantage of using the sun's energy.

By Tyler Olsen | March 21, 2022 |5:00 am

It started as a plan for the University of the Fraser Valley to cut its greenhouse gas emissions.

Now, just a couple years after conception, hundreds of solar panels on one of UFV’s largest buildings look set to save the university considerable money, and pay for itself much sooner than first thought. In the process, the project hints at a worldwide shift in the affordability and economics of solar energy.

Building G, on UFV’s Abbotsford campus, is a sprawling 56,000-square-feet structure that houses offices, amenities, classrooms and the university’s main library. Last year, 321 solar panels were placed on top of the facility, as part of ongoing (and government-mandated) efforts to reduce its emissions.

While relatively green, maintaining and delivering BC’s hydroelectric power supply isn’t entirely carbon neutral. BC often produces more power than it needs. When it does so, that electricity is sold to neighbours, displacing dirtier forms of energy. It also sometimes imports electricity from the broader North American power grid. That means that even in hydro-dependent BC, electricity-saving endeavours can help reduce global emissions.

Electricity will also be needed to power the Fraser Valley’s increasing numbers of electric vehicles. Last year, the Current reported that the number of electric vehicles in Chilliwack and Abbotsford had increased 10-fold between 2016 and 2020. (The university has eight electric-vehicle charging spots at its Chilliwack campus and 12 at its Abbotsford campuses. It charges no fee to use its Level 1 and Level 2 stations for as long as four hours. Its two Level 3 fast-charging stations in Abbotsford cost 20 cents per minute for the first half hour and 40 cents for each minute after.)

(Video by UFV.) Story continues below

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The Building G project followed a feasibility study several years ago intended to ensure the solar panels would actually have a positive environmental impact. Now, a year after the panels were installed, the results show how solar panels are reaching an economic tipping point, with the financial benefits becoming increasingly clear.

When first considered, the $214,000 project was expected to have an 18-year return on investment. That was decent: it suggested the solar panels would pay for themselves, eventually. But a study conducted five months after the panels were installed anticipated that the panels would save the university around $19,000 over their first year. That would put the project on pace to cover its costs in around 10 years. Mark Goudsblom, UFV’s director of campus planning and facilities management, thinks the savings may be even higher. The project could pay off in as little as six years, in part because the math gets better every year that electricity gets more expensive—which is to say, every year.

“It’s getting cheaper and cheaper to buy solar panels,” Goudsblom told the Current.

And those cheaper panels are also better than they were before.

“They are actually putting out a lot more power,” he said. “They are even putting out power on rainy and cloudy days. So you’re seeing energy coming from those panels even when it’s not sunny.”

Of course, the panels are generating less power than when exposed to direct sun. But that calculation is also changing. Because, ironically, the changing climate is itself making solar power a better bet.

“We used to say that at these latitudes it didn’t always make sense to use and harvest solar power because we have shorter days and things like that. That is changing. We’re seeing more sunny days, sunny spells, hotter summers, as part of climate change.”

Goudsblom hopes the UFV project, and others like it, could inspire others to consider the benefits of solar panels—both on the environment, and their hydro bills.

“Originally we weren’t quite sure if it was going to work, but because solar panels are becoming cheaper, because the technology is becoming better, because the energy that comes from them is higher, all of these now are starting to get us to a point where we can start showing they really do make a benefit for even just regular households.”

Solar panels on UFV's Buildling G are expected to save hundreds of thousands of dollars in electricity bills. 📷 UFV
Solar panels on UFV’s Building G are expected to save hundreds of thousands of dollars in electricity bills. 📷 UFV

Not just panels

Another interesting project that could be a sign of the future? UFV’s solar wall on the Envision Athletic Centre. A series of black metal panels along the building’s large southern wall warms the air before it enters the building’s heating system. The university uses natural gas to heat many of its buildings, including the athletic centre. But using the sun to warm the air as it enters the heating system has allowed the university to significantly reduce its gas usage for the athletic centre, particularly on sunny spring and fall days.

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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