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October 22, 2009

May the sun always shine

Pat Halpin

SolarThe annual onslaught of winter heating costs is just around the corner.

But as the sun pours over this farmland two hours northwest of Toronto, Ken Matthews is prepared. A solar collector beside the tidily-landscaped family home captures sun that powers 60 per cent of their everyday needs.

Matthews’ solar collector powers his furnace, heats water for the family of four, and runs the lights, including Christmas decorations.

“It works really fine. It just does its thing,” says Matthews, who bartered with a buddy for the free-standing solar collector eight years ago to help cut expensive rural hydro bills.

Matthews is one of thousands of homeowners across Canada who uses solar power to ease energy costs, make a statement, or live in a spot that traditional hydro lines don’t reach.

Canadians count on solar power to protect infrastructure that we depend on every day. Solar-powered equipment monitors pipelines, runs navigational aids and keeps telecommunications systems operating.

Solar power has two faces - thermal power that warms houses, heats water and dries crops and lumber; and electricity produced in silicon-wafer photovoltaic cells that can power a traffic sign or be linked in arrays that feed power into the grid.

Cars get bad press as energy hogs, but heating our homes and workplaces gobbles 30 per cent of our energy use, according to Natural Resources Canada. It calculates the seven million detached homes in Canada consume 62 terawatt hours of electricity at a cost pegged in 2007 at $6 billion.

The same survey estimates rooftop solar units could meet 45 per cent of the average home’s need, with a surplus in the summer.

Yet homes and subdivisions incorporating solar components are just beginning to dot the real estate offerings.

Examples range from the 52-home Drakes Landing subdivision in Okotoks, Alta., where heat is collected through 800 solar panels and distributed through a communal system, to the high-tech but urban-looking EcoTerra house near Sherbrooke, Que., with its myriad energy monitoring systems.

It’s not just homes that are soaking up the sun to beat energy costs.

Solar-powered ventilation systems for chicken and pig barns that need a large volume of air exchange create a niche market, according to Al Clark, senior advisor with Natural Resources Canada’s renewable-heat program. 

Solar-heated water for nursing homes, car washes and apartment buildings are among the 450 projects the program has signed on in the two years since it started.

Those larger-scale systems make good economic use of solar technology, Clark said. Applying solar to homes can mean higher construction costs, but some environmentally-conscious buyers are ready to take that step.

 “You get a lot of people doing this where the economics aren’t quite as good but they’re doing it for sustainable-development reasons,” Clark said.

Partnerships are the key in the drive to get solar into the mainstream.

The renewable-heat program works with solar suppliers. The Solar Building Research Network gathers Natural Resource Canada, universities and manufacturers under the banner of “net-Zero” buildings.

Its prize project is Concordia University’s newly opened John Molson School of Business on Ste Catherine Street in downtown Montreal. As a net-zero building it will produce more power than it consumes because of the sunshine and solar components factored into the building design.

The team headed by Concordia’s Dr. Andreas Athienitis covered the top two floors of the office tower with 300 square metres of solar panels.  The panels replace the need for the usual building materials. At the same time, they heat the building and run the lights. The project is described as an example of the buildings of the future - where homes and offices supply their own energy needs and create enough power to charge an electric car or feed into the grid.

That’s easier said than done. Meters and distribution systems are designed to take centrally produced power to consumers, not the other way around.

“Issues (are) with the distribution system not being very intelligent at this point,” said Prof. Claudio Canazeries of the University of Waterloo engineering department.

Waterloo University has a $3-million research grant to determine how to connect large scale projects, such as the solar farms at Sarnia and Petrolia in southwestern Ontario, to the hydro distribution grid.

One hurdle is that solar power production is not steady. There’s lots on a sunny day, none at night. The challenge is to build a system that can deal with those variations. And connecting to decentralized producers such as solar-equipped homes and commercial buildings when they’re running an excess means allowing power to run both ways – something that’s not possible now without expensive redesign.  

“The solutions are there if we’re willing to pay for it. At the end of the day, it’s a matter of cost,” Canazaries says.

Ontario vowed to make that possible as part of the Green Energy Act it introduced this spring. The same act clears red tape and provides incentives for renewable energy sources including solar.  Those steps could see Ontario signing significantly more than the 290 solar electric contracts, totalling 525,381 kilowatt hours of electricity it committed to last year.

Still, solar electric provides a tiny fraction of Canada’s power, with a total of 25.8 megawatts installed as of 2007 – about enough to run 8,600 homes. That’s in spite of photo voltaic module sales that have grown an average 27 per cent a year since 1993. The federal government’s goal is to have solar account for five per cent of total generation by 2025.

Yearly average sunlight hours are higher in Vancouver, Regina, Montreal and St. John’s than in Hamburg or Tokyo.

Yet Germany and Japan have invested three times as much as Canada in solar power and have seen tremendous leaps in its use. The solar industry in Canada is watching the government for cues on how to position it for what could be a boom part of the energy sector.

Strong government policy backed by cash assistance is what investors and manufacturers want.

The signs are good. American commitment to growth in the renewable-energy sector and tax credits for solar, paired with Ontario’s Green Energy Act, are moves in the right direction according to the Canadian Solar Industries Association.

“(It) places solar firmly at the forefront of efforts to stimulate our global economy,” said association president Elizabeth McDonald.

Federal Energy Minister Lisa Raitt is on record touting solar power as clean energy and a source of skilled jobs, but the industry has seen little by way of solid incentives. It’s waiting to hear the aggressive commitment to photovoltaic programs it says is needed to secure the industry and boost its growth.

“Other countries are recognizing that investing in renewable energy delivers both economic benefits in terms of jobs and manufacturing capacity, while at the same time addressing the serious climate-change challenges," McDonald said.

As Ken Matthews says about his move to solar power: “It’s a mind set”.

Pat Halpin is a freelance writer based in Kincardine, Ontario.

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