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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Solar Energy in Toronto

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If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production.

-Pete Seeger

It’s a warm afternoon as I head down to the Ravina Project to chat with Gord, Susan and Simon about their unique science experiment using their 1920s home. I was told to go through the side gate and as I do I get distracted by some healthy-looking potted tomatoes, lettuce, and other vegetables. Gord greets me from his lawn chair in a large backyard filled with plants; that’s when I notice the massive solar panel on the roof. The Ravina Project has been an ongoing initiative to create a less energy dependent and environmentally responsible home.

The Ravina Project was inspired by the blackout in the summer of 2003. Susan was home alone and did not like that she, like everyone affected by the blackout, was left in such a vulnerable position. She decided that creating a back-up would be a new project. Gord and Susan created functional specs in 2006 and sent it out for proposal. SolSmart Energy Solutions Inc. won the design competition and created a massive movable solar panel that sits atop the house.

The solar panel is fitted with an actuator arm which is normally used to move commercial telecom satellite dishes. The arm maximizes the energy collected by shifting the solar array throughout the day to correct for the sun’s altitude above the horizon. The arm’s programmable controller is a 1995 version of an IRD used to move old fashioned mesh satellite dishes. The harvested solar energy is stored in a large battery in the basement. It can support critical energy use in the house for two days without additional energy input. Any excess generated energy is fed back into the Grid.

It should be noted that the Ravina Project is not part of the FITT program. The FITT program, which allows households to generate energy for the Grid, does not allow households to store electrical energy. In case of a breakdown in the electricity supplied from the Grid, under FITT, the solar panels are automatically shut down until the Grid comes back on line.  It’s a safety feature to protect Hydro workers who are working to restore Grid power.

Though the solar panel stands out, it is also the insulation, energy efficient appliances, double glazed windows, a 95% efficient gas boiler which supplies domestic hot water and hot water for heating among other improvements, that have contributed to the 40% increase in household heating efficiency since the winter of ’04-’05.  The household is powered by electricity but is heated by Natural Gas.

What makes this five year project remarkable is not just the physical infrastructure but the massive effort to record all the data regarding energy use – about 100,000 data points and counting by the end of this year. Gord and Susan have recorded solar generation per week, gas usage, HDD (Heating Degree Days) and other details, and that’s not to mention the multitude of science papers that are published on the project’s WEB site. They also tweet their daily usage on Twitter: @ravinaproject.

The question often associated with alternative energy – and one I certainly asked – was regarding cost. Gord didn’t answer my question outright at first but explained it this way – this project was not just about the cost spent or saved but rather is an insurance calculation. Climate change and its unpredictable consequences require not only behavioural changes, but also structural changes that will buffer changes in energy prices (if oil becomes more and more scarce energy is surely going to cost more). Changes in private residences could lead the way towards the more sustainable city that is necessary – not in the future but now. It only takes one period of extended blackout or other energy interruption to make the investments in energy efficiency and production worthwhile, in the same way a broken leg on vacation makes travel insurance worth the investment.

Nevertheless we did get to the hard dollars. Gord estimates the solar panel system cost approximately $30,000 (which is far more expensive than flat panels today). Other retrofits to the home, such as the insulation and boiler/furnace, cost an additional $30,000. Susan says they have published all their changes in household efficiencies on the WEB site in a paper entitled, Household Thermodynamics 2010. Gord also pointed out that he tries to reuse or repurpose as much equipment as possible which also decreases the Ravina Project’s ecological footprint. Gord loves second hand stuff!

When the Ravina Project started, about five years ago they did not need any permits to add the solar panels to the roof. Solsmart handled all the design and engineering requirements. To add any structure to a private property homeowners must now wade through detailed municipal bylaws. While stringent regulations are a benefit and protector of the environment, other times it can hamper individual efforts to lighten their ecological footstep.

When I asked Gord, Susan and Simon why they did this, why they put their plans out for open use and diligently take data information they all earnestly said simply that it was the right thing to do not just for themselves but also for their community, future generations and, importantly, the planet itself. By undertaking this experiment in environmental efficiency others can adopt, modify, take pieces of or scrutinize the plans. A strong sense of civic and environmental responsibility is featured in their lifestyle choice.

What if you’re looking at these plans – the solar panel, the complex systems – and think it’s a little too much? It IS too much because Susan and Gord set up their equipment and movable panels to do science plus generate their own power. It is very different and far more expensive than a common installation.

There are other steps you can take to improve your home’s efficiency and lessen the amount of energy you use. Gord stressed that insulation – windows, walls, ceiling and floor – is one of the biggest ways to conserve energy. Secondly, when purchasing new appliances and furnaces consider their efficiency rating. These will be running consistently or fairly often so a decrease in their energy needs could make a big difference in your overall energy use. Encourage your MPP to support green energy and improving the efficiency of energy infrastructure. Most important, consider your own energy habits and how they impact your human and ecological community. We’re all in this together and if each person takes responsibility for their own footprint we will have a much a brighter future.

-Photo by Gord


One comment

  1. I’m impressed that they are collecting data and doing real research. Facts, not wishful thinking!