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Renewables In Your Back Yard: On-line Tools in the U.S. and Canada Show Solar & Wind Potential
Alex Aylett, 6 Aug 10

Is it worth it? Figuring out if your home, office, or the public pool down the street is suitable for solar or wind power isn't a straightforward process. Decentralized renewable energy is expanding rapidly and will be taken for granted as part of tomorrow's smart energy systems. Thankfully a series of on-line tools exists to help you figure out what you and your community's place can be in that future.

There are two basic questions when it comes to renewables: First, how suitable is your site – how much sun does your roof really get? Second, how do the costs pencil out and what subsidies and incentives are available to make it more affordable?

In Your Backyard
For Americans, “In My Backyard” (IMBY) produced by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is an excellent tool. Working in Google Maps you pinpoint your roof, draw on the size and location of the solar or wind installation you have in mind and hit “enter.” The system then uses meteorological data, local electricity rates and information on state and federal incentives, to calculate how much power you would produce and how long it will take for your installation to pay for itself at currents rates. (I confess that there is something strangely addictive about drawing solar panels all over your neighbors' roofs.)

IMBY doesn't work north of the 49th Parallel, but Canadians (and Americans) can use SolarRating goes a step further than IMBY, letting you get more accurate estimates by adding the slope of your roof, and trees or other buildings that may shade your panels. A quick login is necessary at the end to see the report for your location.

Of Desire and Tax Incentives
While costs of solar have come down by more than a quarter since 2002, subsidies and incentives are still key to level the playing field with conventional energy sources. Incentive programs are being managed by a variety of different government agencies and non-profits. Cumulatively they can cover up to 80% of costs in some areas, but keeping track of them can be difficult. In the U.S. the aptly named DSIRE database, has federal, state and local incentives all sorted by state.

The route is less direct for Canadians. This past March the federal government canceled their ecoEnergy program, effectively halving the amount of available subsidies. Thankfully, many provinces and municipalities offer their own incentives. Natural Resources Canada hosts a directory of those programs. The Canadian Solar Industries Association also offers a good listing of solar incentives. A variety of non-profits, like B.C. and Ontario's Sustainable Energy Association, also offer support that is not listed there.

Canada Trailing
Putting together this information, I was surprised by the difference between what is available North and South of the Canada/US border. A homeowner in Oregon can qualify for cash rebates and tax credits that can halve the cost of a $40,000 home solar electric system. In Canada, only the Northwest Territories offers direct incentives and they are caped at $5,000 for individuals (although it rises to $50,000 for communities). Ontario's generous feed-in tariff's also act as an incentive for local renewables (recent events aside). But in the rest of the country only solar air and water heating systems qualify for rebates, and in most cases they are under $5,000.

Until that imbalance gets addressed, Canadians are going to be trailing their U.S. cousins when it comes to small scale renewables.

This post originally appeared on Alex's blog OpenAlex.

Editor's Note: If you're interested in renewables, cost estimating, and microgeneration, you might also want to check out this week's other new stories: "Scaling Up Solar: The Global Implications of a New Study that Says Solar Power Is Cost Competitive with Nuclear Power"; and "Investment Needed to Spur UK Microgen Industry."

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It's a shame that the Canadian government is not doing more to promote the use of renewable energy at a distributed level. It only makes sense that the way to a secure energy future is to decentralize as much energy consumption as possible and until infrastructure costs come down, it unlikely to be taken up by Canadians absent some assistance.

Posted by: James Gustafson on 16 Aug 10

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