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Words Matter: Going Solar

Barbara McClintock
(Language Update, Volume 6, Number 3, 2009, page 45)

Did you know…that Quebec’s first renewable grid-tie photovoltaic (PV) system was installed in fall 2003 in one of Montréal’s ecocentres (a recycling centre)? …and that grid-tie solar electric systems with battery backup have been available for Quebec residential use since 2007?1 New terminology for the dawn of the solar age!

Jump on the solar bandwagon

Some scientists now believe that world oil reserves will last only around 50 years at the current rate of use. Today, people across North America and the world are going solar, which has nothing to do with going postal! It means that they "are using radiant energy of the sun to power homes, businesses and even entire communities."2 Recent developments in energy technologies have led to the creation of new words, some of which are shown below (terms are highlighted in context).

Quebec’s first renewable grid-tie photovoltaic (PV) system was installed in fall 2003 for a Montréal ecocentre, a recycling centre. Its design features solar panels and a wind turbine with a battery backup system. Solar or photovoltaic panels, which may be grouped in an array, convert light from the sun into electricity. In fact, grid-tie or grid-connected solar electric systems with battery backup have been available for Quebec residential use since 2007 further to Hydro-Québec’s decision to allow homeowners to net-meter.

Solar panels are intended to harness the sun. But what happens when the sun is not shining? Ideally, you should have a closed-loop system so that, if your solar panels are not generating enough power, the grid will supply you with electricity or, if your solar panels are generating too much, the excess power will be supplied to the grid and you will be paid for it. A good analogy is that electricity is like running water. Since the electricity generated by photovoltaic or solar cells is direct current, it flows into a DC-AC inverter so it can be used by you to heat your home and turn on lights. With a solar battery, excess power generated during the day can be stored and made available at night, thus reducing your energy costs.

There are two main types of solar energy: photovoltaic and thermal. The term photovoltaic refers to the conversion of light into electricity, while solar thermal refers to using sunlight to heat water that produces steam for heating a building. For example, solar thermal panels are a good solution for hot water heating.

So why aren’t more people adopting new technologies?

Renewable energy technologies are relatively expensive. The payback period, which measures how long something takes to pay for itself, is generally too long. Subsidies are needed to improve the competitiveness of renewable energy compared with conventional fuels in the form of renewable energy credits, capital cost allowances and net-metering.3

Germany and some states in the US have already passed legislation to provide home and business owners with tax breaks and/or subsidy programs for purchasing solar and wind power systems. Feed-in tariffs (FITs) are attractive rates that provide an incentive for people to install solar panels. On a positive note, beyond giving Germany more than 20,000 megawatts of clean energy, the FITs have also created new economic opportunities.4

electrical grid réseau électrique

feed-in tariff


renewable credit payment

tarif de soutien
grid-connected system

grid-tie system

réseau coordonné
net-metering, net metering

… connect[ing] to the power grid to offset the purchase of electrical energy from the utility with the surplus energy generated by the on-site generating facility.

facturation nette
renewable energy credit crédit d’énergie renouvelable (proposition)


solar array

photovoltaic array

PV array

solar thermal array

A group of solar panels arranged to capture sunlight and convert it into DC power.

Note: The expression solar array refers to the entire system.

Note: Unlike solar (photovoltaic) technology, solar thermal technology uses sunlight to heat water for purposes of heating a building or generating electric power.

champ de panneaux solaires (terme préféré)

champ photovoltaïque

champ de panneaux (solaires) photovoltaïques

solar battery (1)

A battery used to store solar power for stand-alone systems.

batterie solaire

Dispositif de stockage d’énergie, une batterie d’accumulateurs en somme, équipant les systèmes solaires autonomes et qui est évidemment rechargeable notamment par l’intermédiaire d’un panneau solaire photovoltaïque.

solar battery (2)

An array of solar cells in parallel or in series.

générateur photovoltaïque

batterie solaire (à éviter)

Réunion de cellules photovoltaïques en série ou en parallèle.

solar cell

photovoltaic cell

PV cell

cellule solaire


pile solaire

pile photovoltaïque

solar panel

photovoltaic panel

PV panel

panneau photovoltaïque

panneau solaire

panneau de cellules solaires

panneau solaire photovoltaïque

solar thermal panel

solar hot water panel

solar water heating panel

panneau solaire thermique

solar thermal technology

Note: Unlike solar (photovoltaic) technology, solar thermal technology uses sunlight to heat water for purposes of heating a building or generating electric power.

technologie de la thermie solaire

technologie héliothermique

Note : Contrairement à la technologie solaire (photovoltaïque), la technologie héliothermique repose principalement sur la chaleur plutôt que sur le rayonnement solaire.

N.B. For more information, keep checking TERMIUM®, which is regularly updated by the Translation Bureau.


Author’s Note: I would like to sincerely thank Jean Le Page and his team of terminologists from the Translation Bureau for validating some of the terms discussed here. Any errors are mine.