Mark Jenner logs hundreds of hours a year driving from his home in Thrums, British Columbia to Calgary, Alberta for work. The 1200 kilometre round trip is one he has mostly done in his Dodge Ram Mega Cab with Pantera and Nightrage keeping him company.
“You get passed by a big truck — which used to be me — and there’ll be a black cloud of smoke. I never thought about car exhaust. Now I can smell it. It’s so bad.”
Over the past year, however, Mark’s commute has taken on a different feel, and smell.
“In my opinion, it’s one of the top vehicles our civilization has ever made,” Mark says. The vehicle he is referring to is his Tesla Model S, a car he is quick to admit he enjoys driving more than anything else.
Mark isn’t your typical Tesla owner. He grew up in Castlegar, not California, works in oil and gas instead of tech, and likes giving ‘electric’ ATV driving lessons to his youngest daughter Kady. He also likes saving his family money.
“It’s been a massive savings,” Mark says. “Right now for diesel it would cost me close to $440 to go to Calgary and back and I do that twice a month. Now that will cost me $20 a trip.”
Meet Mark and Leanne Jenner.
Taking Charge Of The Charge
The Jenners’ electric journey doesn’t begin or end with the Tesla. Last spring the family sold Mark’s trusty Dodge Ram and bought a fully electric Hyundai Kona. Then in October they sold the second family vehicle — a newer GMC Terrain SUV — and bought a Tesla Model S. Around the same time, they also looked into getting solar panels.
“I was looking at what could give us a good payback,” Mark says. “We were on the fence about adding a rental suite onto the garage but materials were through the roof. A solar system made the most sense out of anything.”
Mark and Leanne both grew up in Castlegar. They were best friends in high school. And for the past several years, they have been busy raising their daughters Chloe and Kady, their dog Roxy, and a handful of chickens on their rural property in Thrums.
The Jenner’s electric vehicles and solar panels outside their home.
Thrums is a small farming community situated along the Kootenay River. It is 11 kilometres north of Castlegar and known for its u-pick blueberry farms, locally made borscht, and Freedomite history. Recently, however, there has been a lot of local interest in the Jenner’s 20 kW solar system that sits in a field in front of their 1997 home, right off the highway.
“When the panels were getting installed, we had people just stopping by here, inquiring,” Leanne Jenner says. “And then, for about a month after that, people were coming by and asking about them.”
The panels were installed last September and are hooked into the local electrical grid system that is managed by Fortis BC.
“We were originally going to go with a smaller system based on what our current electrical needs were at the time,” Mark says. “But once we priced out a few other things we got it sized for where we’d be in a few years.”
“At that time we still had one diesel vehicle, the GMC,” Leanne Jenner says. “And we factored in that we would go fully electric for vehicles and eventually switch over our gas appliances, our gas stove, fireplace, and furnace.”
The electricity the Jenners’ produce powers their two electric vehicles, all of the lights in the home, and any appliance that is plugged in. When they produce extra energy, they bank it and it is credited to their Fortis account. When their panels don’t produce enough electricity, being tied into the local grid means they can get the power they need that is generated from local hydroelectric dams.
“Our system takes us out of the power consumption equation,” Mark says. “We use 35% more electricity than we did before but there will be one less family taking from the grid.”
The way the Jenners’ produce and consume electricity is known as net metering, a program offered by utility companies that allow residential and commercial customers to connect a small-scale, renewable energy unit to its commercial infrastructure. It allows homeowners to reduce or even eliminate their electrical energy bills.
Mark and Leanne monitor their electrical usage on an app on their smartphone.
Breaking Up With Benzene
Mark works in the oil and gas industry and he views the resource as one Canadians depend on daily. He also understands that transitioning off of fossil fuels is a direction the country needs to go in order to tackle climate change and he believes the technology to help the country get there, is coming.
“Batteries have already come so far in the last few years and it’s going to get better and better,” Mark says. “Then you’ll see you have a bigger environmental impact in a good way.”
While they do care about the environment, this wasn’t a motivating factor for Mark and Leanne. Their decision to switch everything over to a more renewable form of energy came mostly down to saving money and keeping their family healthy.
“I know a fair bit about benzene,” Mark explains. “It’s part of the hydrocarbon family and the vapours are what you take in. Anytime you fill up your vehicle with fuel you’ll be exposed and you are probably over the daily health limit.”
According to the World Health Organization, benzene is a well-established cause of cancer and anemia in humans and it comes from cigarette smoke, aerosol spray products, and gasoline.
Leanne discusses that the family will be switching to electric appliances.
Since 1997, Canadian regulations have imposed limits on the amount of benzene allowed in gasoline, a chemical key to the refinement of crude oil.
On his Albertan job site, Mark says there are benzene monitors everywhere and strict health precautions are taken in order to limit exposure for workers. At home, however, eliminating the source seems to be the easiest and safest plan for his family, and he has done that by converting every tool, toy, and vehicle over to electricity, one at a time.
“We’re not putting gas into the ATV or the golf cart. The weed whipper and all the rest of my tools are electric now” Mark says. “We’re still putting gas into the lawnmower but that will be done this year when we get an electric one.”
Kady having fun on the family’s electric golf cart.
Money And Autonomy
Working as a power engineer in Alberta is a job that Mark enjoys and values. His higher salary has allowed Leanne to work less, their daughters Kady and Chloe to take dance classes in Castlegar, and it has allowed their family to invest more money into their future.
“I’ve seen a few too many stories of families retiring then suffering due to an increased cost of living,” Mark says. “I believe I can eliminate almost all of those burdens and plan for the future in regards to savings for the kids and retirement for us. And I want to teach our kids the importance of planning.”
Mark and Leanne have run the numbers and expect to have their $50,000 solar system paid off, thanks to their electricity savings, in less than 12 years. They are thrilled about the savings although it isn’t all about the money.
“Cost-wise, and being not as reliant on other systems as much is big for us,” Mark says.
So far, the solar system has run smoothly. Some electrical bills have been covered, and some haven’t, which is to be expected during the overcast winter months. The Jenner’s only complaint involves the grant process itself.
“When you put a $50,000 system in you expect to get the full grant,” Leanne says. “Fortis was quick to provide our $300 rebate but the Greener Homes Grant has taken forever. I applied in October and we just got news in March that we are going to be receiving the full $5600.”
The Canada Greener Homes Grant is a federal program that covers a range of energy efficiency homeowner projects including installing renewable energy systems like solar panels. The grant became publicly available in May 2021 and eligible homeowners can access grants of up to $5600.
Both the pandemic and a lack of qualified home energy auditors have slowed down the administration of the grants and have left families, like the Jenners, uncertain if their grants will arrive.
Rebate waits aside, however, the Jenners are happy with the decision they made to go solar. It’s hard to describe the satisfaction that comes with running their home, cars and other appliances on electricity that they make themselves. And with the recent spike in gas prices, Mark is absolutely certain they’ve made the right decision.
“I don’t want to be a victim to energy price fluctuations that are out of my control, like what is going on in Ukraine,” Mark says. “I want to have all of our utilities controlled so we always know what we will spend.”
For those looking to do the same, the couple has some words of advice.
“Do your research,” Mark says. “Size the system for your future electrical needs. Be very thorough. Involve kids if they have them and educate them on the system as they grow.”
Leanne feels the same.
“I think it’s important to make smart decisions and plan ahead for the future.”
Leanne, Mark, Kady, and Chloe Jenner.