Rising of the solar sun

Tomorrow's solar home today! Michael Pastore dreams of the day his hydro meter will start running backwards. For the last two years, Pastore and his wife have been working evenings, weekends and holidays to transform their house into an energy-efficient home. Soon, Pastore says, that will include solar. "My wife and I are committed to it," he says. "We're both staunchly anti-nuclear." Once they're conserving as much as possible, the couple is eager to "go to the next step." That will take their Toronto two-storey from a pleasant downtown renovation to a model of the solar home of the future. At least, the solar home that is most likely to become common as the prices of natural gas, oil and electricity continue to rise. First on Pastore's wish list are roof-top photovoltaic (solar) panels. Decent panels cost about $1,200 each, and a satisfactory system for a typical Canadian house will come with a price tag of $12,000 to $20,000, according to Tyler Moore, CEO of Permanent Power Solutions, a solar and wind company based in Woodstock, Ont. The panels will power the hot-water heater, fridge and compact fluorescent lights. The house has an unobstructed roof and exposed south-facing wall on the second storey, which also make it a good candidate for a new solar unit that will reduce heating costs. In Canada, space heating is the single biggest use of energy in a house, by far (59.3 percent). Pastore has his eye on a simple system called the RA 240 Solar Max, manufactured in Newfoundland by Cansolair. The 2.6-square-metre unit is available from numerous companies, including Enviro-Energy Technologies Inc. in Markham, Ont., for about $2,600. Mounted on a south-facing wall, it can heat 93 square metres (1,000 square feet) with just 15 minutes of sunlight per hour. These inexpensive systems don't burn anything and won't end up pumping carbon monoxide into the basement. There are some tax incentives available to home-owners who want to go solar, but as Pastore notes, they're not significant enough to make a real difference. A native of Colorado, he points to a Carter-era U.S. rebate that meant solar systems could be paid off in savings in just five to eight years, despite the high cost of solar in the 1970s. He laments that the governments of today aren't showing such initiative. If your eye is on the home of the future, there's a new solar panel on the horizon that integrates into a modern home's neat lines, taking the place of a skylight or becoming a windowed wall. Best of all, the panels not only generate electricity but also allow about 30 percent of natural light to pass through them. That light further cuts indoor lighting costs. The panels are less expensive to manufacture because they don't use silicon (the main component in traditional photovoltaic cells) and take one-tenth of the energy to produce heat. The panels are manufactured and distributed in Canada by fledgling Helios Technologies. The Dye-Sensitized Solar Cell (DSC) uses a process of "artificial photosynthesis" to produce electricity. Under peak conditions, the DSC does not perform as well as a silicon-based solar panel, a fact readily admitted by Martin Rodriguez, the company's vice-president of marketing and sales. However, they perform significantly better in low-light conditions, such as early morning, early evening or a cloudy day. As a result, he says their "overall yield is much higher." Helios isn't targeting the retrofit market, yet. But a few years down the road, Rodriguez hopes to be offering the panels to new home-buyers as a developer's option, like hardwood flooring or upgraded countertops. If he and home-owners like Pastore have their way, solar power, solar heating units and solar hot water will finally become standard features for Canadian houses. And on good days, all our houses will have their meters running backwards, feeding power into the grid, and reducing our dependence on polluting energy sources.