Argon Electrical & Solar Services at local forefront of power from the sun

Installing a solar electric system for your house is a big investment, but there are government incentives and big savings on electric bills to make the investment worthwhile.

That’s the view of Eric Pierce, who has sold solar systems for Argon Electrical and Solar Services Inc. for the past three years.

Argon, owned by Dean Malmberg, of Oliver, has been doing solar installations for nearly 15 years, and work has been busy.

“Right now we are probably the number one solar installer in the South Okanagan-Similkameen,” says Pierce. “It’s a fledgling market and it’s building quickly. We’re going to continue doing more solar… We’re very proud of the systems.”

Matt Leyes and Ravina Johal, owners of Black Sage Butcher in Oliver, show some of their meat products. (Richard McGuire Photo)
Eric Pierce, in solar sales with Argon Electrical Services, assembles the frame for a solar array at a new home outside Osoyoos. (Richard McGuire Photo)
Members of the Argon team attach solar panels to an array at a new home. From left are: James Wheeler, apprentice electrician; Dean Malmberg, owner/electrician; and Eric Pierce, solar sales. When there's enough space and the topography is right, sometimes the arrays are installed on the ground like this one, but more commonly they are attached to roofs. (Richard McGuire Photo)

The majority of Argon’s solar systems are residential installations, but Pierce says the company aims to increase its involvement with the industrial sector.

“The programs that are coming – tax incentives and whatnot – will make it easier for companies to go with it,” says Pierce. “So we’re going to be pushing that direction, but right now it’s mostly residential.”

Pierce, originally from Toronto, has been in the Okanagan since 2003. He did an environmental degree in his schooling, and it’s long been an interest, but his position with Argon is his first time selling solar.

“It’s a great fit,” he says.

Multiple solar panels are placed side-by-side in an array to provide sufficient electrical power. (Richard McGuire Photo)

Pierce sees electricity and solar as the way of the future, though he acknowledges that fossil fuels won’t disappear any time soon.

He points to electric vehicles (EVs) that make up a small percentage of the market currently, predicting, “It’s going to grow massively over the next few years.”

So what are the economics of residential solar?

Pierce says Argon’s smaller jobs typically start around $15,000, but one elaborate installation in a larger house came to $65,000. The cost is partly influenced by the position of the house in relation to availability of sunlight, as well as the size of the house and its power needs.

These up-front costs can be partially offset by government grants and interest-free loans. There’s a federal grant of $5,000 that could reduce the cost to the consumer of a $15,000 installation to just $10,000.

There’s also a federal government loan up to $40,000, interest free for 10 years, for home energy efficiency, including solar.

The British Columbia government also saves consumers money by not charging provincial sales tax on solar products.

James Wheeler, apprentice electrician, wires a solar array after the panels are installed. (Richard McGuire Photo)

Further savings result from free electricity during the sunniest months, when customers can also sell surplus electricity back to the utilities, such as FortisBC or BC Hydro, under their “net metering” programs.

Under net metering, customers receive a credit for surplus electricity that goes back into the grid. This credit can then be used to reduce electricity bills in the darker, winter season when customers typically need to supplement their solar electricity by drawing electricity from the grid.

So while they need to buy electricity from the utility in the winter months, the cost is less thanks to the surplus produced in the sunnier months.

Pierce says customers typically recover their installation costs in about 12 to 14 years.

“One thing to keep in mind, the return on investment per year typically is around 7% to 8%, so that’s hugely significant if you think about investing,” he says. “That 7% or 8% is fantastic, and that of course is realized in the savings from your electrical bill.”

Considering that a solar system normally lasts a minimum of 25 years, and sometimes 35-40 years, a payoff after 12-14 years makes it attractive. The systems Argon sells have a warranty of 25 years.

A truck shows Argon Electrical Services Inc.'s logo. (Richard McGuire Photo)

Argon’s equipment comes from California-based Enphase Energy, which Pierce says is now number one in the marketplace. Argon orders the equipment just prior to each installation, rather than stocking it, in order to ensure that customers get the most current equipment.

About 85% of Argon’s solar installations involve installing solar panels on house roofs, says Pierce. The remaining 15% are installed in arrays on the ground. For example, with one house where we observed the installation, the array was placed at some distance from the house in order to catch sunlight for more of the day.

“Of course you have to have real estate to do that,” said Pierce, referring to the ground arrays.

It might appear tempting to install a bigger system than you need in order to produce a year-round surplus, but Pierce cautions that it’s not advisable or even permitted.

If you have a surplus when the electric utilities reconcile in March, they pay at a much lower rate than you would as a credit on your power bill.

Utility providers also need to approve the solar installation.

“They want to make sure that you’re not at more than 100%,” explains Pierce. “The only time they’ll allow more than 100% is if the customers sign off on it knowing they’ll be getting an electric car, and their consumption will go up.”

Net metering eliminates the need for batteries to store surplus electricity that a solar system produces. That’s good because even with battery technology improving, batteries are very expensive.

Electrical components for a complex solar system were installed in a garage by Argon Electrical & Solar. (Eric Pierce photo)

“People think they want to go off the grid, but that’s somewhat naïve,” says Pierce. “Going off the grid is very complicated, and you need to know what you’re doing. It would mainly be for a small cabin. You wouldn’t be doing a house off the grid. The batteries would be literally a hundred thousand dollars to do something like that.”

That’s changing.

Battery technology is evolving, and lithium iron phosphate batteries (not to be confused with lithium ion) are becoming more common, especially for electric vehicles.

“The lithium iron [phosphate] battery is the best battery out there for general use, for length of [life], and the least amount of maintenance,” says Pierce.

Thanks to newer batteries, it is becoming increasingly possible to integrate the battery of an electric vehicle with the household current. The Ford F150 Lightning, an electric pickup, can power a house from its battery during an outage, for example. Once grid power returns, it immediately starts recharging the truck.

“Going forward, we want to get into more of the technology of whole home independence, which we think is the way it’s going,” says Pierce. “We’ve got all the electrical know-how and solar know-how, so batteries are next.”

Story and photographs by Richard McGuire

Argon Electrical & Solar Services

338 Co-op Avenue, Box 1554

Oliver, BC  V0H 1T0

Phone: 250-498-4506