Power Switch

Lawrence Scanlan
Canadian Geographic
May 1, 2001

When Tom Touzel looks up on clear nights, he can sometimes spot a seemingly new star in the firmament — the International Space Station. And he feels a small tug, for the orbiting lab and his log house in rural Ontario are both powered by the brightest of heavenly bodies: the sun.

Last December, Canadian astronaut Marc Garneau helped install 74-metre-long solar panels to boost the station’s energy supply. In 1993, Touzel was among the first in Ontario to connect his solar panels to the hydro grid.

People far from utility lines have for decades used renewable energy — solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric — to power their homes. But Touzel’s was a rare arrangement, for it meant that on long, bright summer days, when the panels produced more electricity than he could use, “green” power was fed back into the grid.

Eight years later, traditional energy sources have never been more costly or uncertain. Going green, which has always made environmental sense, may soon make economic sense as well. Renewable energy has long promised a rosy future just around the corner. The rub has been cost and reliability; we Canadians like our power cheap and easy, and we balk at paying more for clean energy. Still, there are some encouraging signs that we are slowly moving in the right direction.

Touzel was born green. As a child in Sudbury, Ont., he remembers being gripped by the fear that some day, we would breathe up all the air. It was a great relief when he discovered the role of trees in replenishing the oxygen supply.

A family physician in Napanee, Ont., Touzel bicycles kilometres to work every day — in winter, along the frozen river that runs past his family’s parcel of land southwest of town. At 41, he is lean and tall and fit, with an easy, assured manner. “Electricity,” he says, “is pretty simple.”

It is fitting that a solar pioneer would live in a pioneer’s cabin. For Touzel, his wife Liz — also a family doctor — and their two young daughters, Lindey and Molly, home is an arranged marriage of two square-timbered log structures that date from the 1880s. One day last December, a brisk sunny morning outside, Touzel is inside sporting railwayman’s coveralls over a white T-shirt. Sprawling on the couch before the wood stove, he recalls his foray into sun power.

“At that time,” he says, “there were one or two others connected to the grid with solar power. A man at Ontario Hydro, called Per Drewes, smoothed the waters. He had solar panels installed in Toronto on the roof of The Hospital for Sick Children and at the Kortright Centre for Conservation (a showcase for alternative energy). The other thing that facilitated my hookup is that around here, I’m Dr. Tom. Everybody knows me, including the local hydro inspector.”

Touzel built the wood frame for his 12 linked solar panels (“a 600- watt array,” as he calls it) and set it between heavy cedar posts near the house. In his workshop, he installed the inverter that converts direct current from the panels into alternating current for the house. The entire system cost $12,000. Then he took measures to conserve energy: all lights in the house are compact fluorescent, and a solar collector on the roof supplies most of the Touzels’ hot water, with a propane tank as backup. The refrigerator draws minimal current, and wood alone provides heat. Backing up the wood stove, in a touch of supreme irony, is an almost never used electric furnace.

In summer, the solar panels provide 60 percent of the family’s energy needs; in winter, less than 10 percent. Touzel had consulted charts and determined exactly how many “peak hours” of sun his region receives through spring, summer, fall and winter. He knew that on overcast days, the solar panels would produce almost no energy and the family would depend entirely on the grid. But the mere act of tapping into the son issued daily reminders of the need to conserve. It’s like driving a car, he says, with the fuel guage always reading low.

“When Molly got an aquarium,” says Touzel, “it meant a pump. It felt like an extravagance, and we talked about that.” In this house, you leave a room at night, you turn off the light. Still, his lifestyle is less green than he would like it: “I had always thought I’d add more panels. I thought that by 1996, I’d be a net producer of energy. The kids came along, and I haven’t done it.”

If a committed environmentalist like Touzel is stalled on his solar course, what hope is there for the rest of us? Canadians – especially in British Columbia, Manitoba and Quebec, with their wealth of hydroelectric power – have traditionally enjoyed some of the lowest energy prices in the world, but that has only helped make us what critics call “energy pigs” or, to be kinder, “old school.”

Other countries, meanwhile, are reporting spectacular gains in alternative energy. In Denmark, 13,000 people are employed in a wind industry that supplies 8 percent of that nation’s electricity. In the United States, a presidential campaign aims to install solar panels on one million rooftops by 2010. And India has built 2,000 wind turbines at one site – the second largest wind farm in the world.

The planet’s march toward renewable energy has quickened as conventional choices have become ever more problematic. Steadily rising greenhouse gases have forced governments to sign international agreements such as the one in Kyoto, Japan, which is aimed, in part, at lowering fossil-fuel-fired emissions. Burning coal to generate electricity is cheap but contributes to smog, which leads ultimately to premature deaths – 1,900 a year in Ontario alone, according to the Ontario Medical Association.

Using natural gas to produce electricity is cleaner, but increased demand this past winter sent the price of gas soaring. World oil reserves, some estimate, will start to decline before 2010. Amid worries over cost and safety, not one nuclear power plant has been built in North America in two decades. Even hydroelectric dams have come under severe scrutiny for the ecological carnage they wreak.

Enter oil companies, such as British Petroleum, Suncor and Shell, which have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in solar and wind power. BP expects to sell $1 billion in solar equipment by 2007 and Shell predicts renewable energy will produce half of the world’s power by 2050. Big business, then, has bought into solar, and futurists believe that one day, residential energy needs will be met by solar panels on the roof and a fuel cell in the basement.

What has sparked new hope among solar and wind advocates is the deregulation of hydro monopolies around the world. An open hydro market has worked well in the United Kingdom, Norway and Sweden, Australia and New Zealand, although when introduced last year in California, it lead to blackouts and price increases of several hundred percent. Soaring electricity rates are also hitting Albertans hard in the aftermath of that province’s deregulation program. And Ontario is now struggling to avoid similar cost hikes with its electricity restructuring scheme.

“I’ve been chastened by the California experience,” says Tom Adams, executive director of Energy Probe, a national environmental and consumer think-tank based in Toronto. “I am convinced that an open electricity market is the way to go. But I had not appreciated the delicacy and brittleness of the reform process.”

Many clean-energy retailers also believe the open market holds more promise than the old debt-ridden autocratic monopolies. Chuck Gobeil, a partner with Renewable Energy of Plum Hollow in Kingston, Ont., has been in the solar business for 10 years. “The first house we did, it took us three months to get approval from hydro inspectors,” he says. “There was real antipathy between Ontario Hydro and alternative-energy types. We were going to take away their business. Things have improved 100 percent.”

Deregulation may make it easier to plug rooftop solar panels into the grid and do what Touzel did – make his hydro meter run backwards. This so-called net metering is now permitted in Alberta, some 30 American states and Germany. In Ontario, Toronto Hydro allows it; utilities elsewhere in the province vary in their enthusiasm for solar links. The public relations value in pumping green power into their grids is not lost on governments or their utilities, says Ian Mondro, a Toronto lawyer who specializes in energy matters. Mondrow cites two other factors that may foster more grid links with alternative energy producers. “The technical problems – grids can be thrown out of whack – have been resolved. It’s also become clear to utilities that some people are willing to pay a premium for green power that lets them sleep better at night, to say, ‘I did something about it.'”

Among the new products creating burgeoning interest around the world is a Canadian one called Solarwall that heats and ventilates buildings. It involves fronting the south side of a building with perforated galvanized steel or aluminum, which is set out anywhere from 10 to 30 centimetres and closed in. Customers include Ford, General Motors, Bombardier, the American military, NASA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

John Hollick, the founder of Conserval Engineering Inc., which developed the Solarwall, points to another use: agriculture. “A few dozen companies are using it to dry coffee, tea, spices, rice and fruit,” says Hollick. “In the past, they’ve used oil or wood to produce the heat, so the environmental gain in terms of reduced emissions could become significant.”

Slowly, builders and architects are discovering that there is something new under the sun. “Integrated” solar describes a wide range of building materials that produce heat or electricity – or both. Contractors can now buy solar roof shingles and tiles, as well as glass etched imperceptibly with photovoltaic collectors.

The Canadian Coast Guard deploys about 5,000 solar-powered units, from navigational buoys to lighthouses. And yachts and recreational vehicles increasingly rely on energy from the sun. Other sun-powered items run the gamut from lanterns, radios, water pumps and street lights to telecom- munications towers, railway switching devices, oil-pipeline flow meters and even parking meters.

On the Trans-Canada Highway and other major roadways across the country, the blinking-dot signs warning of lane closures are solar-powered. Their light-emitting diodes boast a life of 100,000 hours and an energy draw one-tenth that of traditional bulbs.

In Kingston, Gobeil might even get a contract to power a brewery-store sign because the only other option is to rip up the parking lot for underground lines. Solar power, it might seem, will have truly arrived in this country when it illuminates beer signs.

This should be the golden age of alternative energy: a solar panel on every roof, tall turbines on every wind-tossed hill and coastline. The truth is that since people off the grid tend to live in remote areas, solar and wind power have both suffered from the same problem: out of sight, out of mind.

“Become a solar pioneer,” a headline in a Greenpeace advertorial urged in October 1998. “The technology that powers space missions,” it read, “can now be affordably installed on your home rooftop.” Affordably? Readers were invited to sign on, and about 50 did. But their $3,000 got them a small 200-watt solar array that provided a mere 5 to 10 percent of their electricity needs. Last December, Cim Nunn, then Greenpeace’s ommunications director in Toronto, said the solar-pioneer program had been suspended: “It was an idea that only a few can afford to indulge in. Maybe it will take an odious thing like marketing.”

Tom Adams of Energy Probe understands why Greenpeace’s solar-pioneer program failed: too few Canadians think like Tom Touzel. “There is limited idealism in the world,” says Adams. When it comes to hydro bills, Canadians ask basic questions: What will a few solar panels cost? How much will I save on my bill? What’s my payback time? Those who sell solar equipment say the hard answers – “a lot,” “not much” and “decades” – disappoint otherwise eager customers. Kim MacMullin and her husband George Wright have sold and installed wind and solar systems in the Ottawa Valley for 10 years but are now considering folding their business, Metcalfe Wind Electric.

MacMullin is disillusioned. “There used to be 10 dealers in the Ottawa area,” she says. “There’s not one left. There’s no money in it whatsoever. Most dealers are doing it part-time. I used to put in 60-hour weeks, my husband 30 to 80 hours. The one Canadian manufacturer of solar panels, CanRon, has moved to the U.S., where there’s more demand.” The litany of despair continues until, at one point, she stops, laughs, and asks, “Am I bitter enough for you?”

MacMullin’s family has been living off the grid for almost a decade and got into the renewables business out of idealism. By using high-efficiency appliances and radiant floor heating linked to a wood stove, their energy needs are modest. Though MacMullin keeps her hand in (and is now writing a solar guide), she shakes her head over people who would rather pay $20,000 to run power lines to their cottage than $15,000 for renewables and wave goodbye to hydro bills.

The best year for Metcalfe Wind Electric was 1999, because of the Y2K scare. Ten families fearing meltdown in-stalled alternative-energy systems worth about $12,000 each. “We’ve kept in touch, MacMullin reports. “These are conservative people, not rabid environmentalists or survivalists. And they love it. They’re off the grid for life.” It’s hard to describe, she says, the delight that comes with independence.

In the early days of the space program, the Americans used photovoltaic cells to power their satellites, at the dizzying cost of $3,000 a watt. Today, the cost is $10 a watt and edging toward $5. “If they could crack a dollar a watt, that would be something,” says Bill Kemp, an electronics wizard near Ottawa who designs power stations in the developing world and lives off the grid.

Until costs come down or the cost of traditional energy sources rises sufficiently, wind and solar will remain minor players, says Adams. Different subsidies could change that. In Canada, the argument goes, the government flings billions of dollars at oil (the tar sands and Hibernia projects), then tosses coins to sun and wind power. Why not offer incentives to homeowners, as many European governments do?

“Solar is practically free in Germany,” says Brian Wilkinson, president of a Montreal solar company called Matrix Energy. Why not make coal-burning hydro producers pay for fouling the air, as tobacco companies now pay for fouling lungs? If governments made dirty power costly, clean power would start to look good. Sounding like forensic accountants, renewable-energy proponents also argue that the true cost of oil should include the billions spent to keep American aircraft carriers plying Middle Eastern waters to safeguard the supply.

Even with financial incentives, though, using renewable energy is not easy. Living off the grid requires foresight, capital, technical savvy and energy mindfulness – along with solar panels, large battery banks to store the energy, an inverter, a generator and possibly a wind turbine as backup. With solar, you must also factor in climate: parts of Saskatchewan get more sun than, say, Newfoundland. Still, off-grid people seem keen on their systems.

Doing what Tom Touzel – linking sun power and the grid – is a middle option far easier than shunning the grid entirely. Touzel’s idea of winter maintenance is taking a broom out in the morning and brushing snow off the panels. His one adjustment to optimize solar gain is to change the angle of the array three times a year: in April, August and November. His system is remarkably simple and effortless. Still, putting up solar panels feels like a bold environmental gesture.

“Our backs are not quite against the wall yet,” says Per Drewes, the research engineer who left Ontario Hydro [now Ontario Power Generation] last summer to start up his own business, SolSource Engineering. On the roof of Hydro’s old corporate headquarters in Toronto, he’s installing a small solar array – a sign of progress, to be sure, but one that gives him only small satisfaction. “It’s too bad,” he says, “that people are not more interested.”

One beleaguered solar dealer, who works full-time at a beer store to make ends meet, wonders whether renewable energy will one day take off in the way that bottled water did, from fad to billion-dollar industry. Alex Waters knows better. He has worked since 1984 as a public education coordinator at the Kortright Centre north of Toronto. Although solar power has grown 24 percent a year over the past decade, Waters sees no radical shift ahead. “People ask, ‘When is there going to be a breakthrough?’ It won’t be like that,” he says. “It will be slow and steady. People will put up solar panels the way they now put insulation in their attics.”

The Calgary electrical utility, Enmax, runs a television ad showing a Canadian Olympic sprinter setting up under a wind turbine before dashing across the prairie, and everywhere in his wake, the lights come on. It is an arresting image that can also be taken literally: going the way of renewable energy involves some legwork.

Touzel must know the feeling as he bikes alone alongside the frozen Napanee River, legs pumping in the afternoon dark, heading for home and the light in his cabin.

Lawrence Scanlan is a writer based in Kingston, Ont.

To comment on this article, e-mail scanlan@canadiangeographic.ca.
For related information, visit http://www.canadiangeographic.ca/resources.

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