The Village Green

A blog about how Canadians can achieve energy independence by powering down and then powering up the right way.

Some days being a Canadian renewable energy entrepreneur is a lot like being on a police bomb squad.  Perhaps it’s not as dangerous mind you but you spend a lot of time worrying about things blowing up in your face. 

Then there’s days I’m truly inspired.  Like a campaigner for a fourth place political party getting a kind word at a doorstep, it’s enough to propel you on to the next thousand doors.  

Yesterday was one of those days.  

I met with a co-operative housing manager and we spoke about how we could help his organization plan out the next stages of their energy efficiency strategy.  

He told me about one of his initiatives.  It’s worth sharing because - well, just because – and, because it’s a great segue into a topic the people at Green Living asked me to spend more time riffing about, that being, solar energy. 

When you operate low-cost housing, the numbers really matter.  We have this idea in our culture that business people are the pros when it comes to numbers, the proverbial sharp and sober eye on the till.   In my experience, most corporate executives couldn’t hold a candle to the people working in non-profits when it comes to discipline, cost management and strategic focus (Peter Drucker noticed this as well by the way). 

Anyway, this manager took two properties comparable in size, orientation (to the sun), living units, occupants and energy costs.  He retrofitted one and left the other as the control case.  

On his retrofitted property he replaced a number of windows and did some additional insulation work.  But his big upgrade was installing one of the new combination condensing boilers available in Canada and pimped it out with a solar system for pre-heating.  

The result?  A 40% drop in energy bills in the winter and 20% in the summer.  He figures he’ll get a 5 year payback.  That comes to roughly a 20% ROI.  Consider that people couldn’t give their money away fast enough to Bernie Madoff and his helicopter for 10% returns.  

He wants more data so he can figure out the standard deviation and further refine his modeling.  I have an MBA.  I don’t even know what a standard deviation is. 

So what does this system do?  

Integrated combination condensing boilers provide water heating for radiators and for domestic hot water (for showers, baths, washing dishes etc) in one unit.  This one unit will replace your boiler (which homes have for things like radiator heating and in-floor heating) and your conventional water heater (the big tank in your basement).  

Condensing boilers can run at over 95% efficiency.  This is compared to more conventional high-efficiency furnaces and boilers which cap out at about 85% - 90%.  The water heaters in most Canadian homes are probably running at less than 70% efficiency and likely closer to 50%.  Consider that slightly over 2/3rds of the energy used in a typical Canadian household is used for water heating and space heating and cooling.  You quickly see how the savings add up.  

This particular system however also was augmented with a solar water heating system.  The solar water heating system pre-heats the water used by the combination boiler.  In doing so, the rise in temperature from municipal water coming in to the house and the temperature required out of the hot water tap is significantly reduced meaning the boiler doesn’t have to work as hard to provide hot water for baths and showers.  Again, additional savings.  

A typical high-quality solar water heating system for a Canadian household will run about $7,000 - $8,000 installed.  A high quality combination boiler will start at about $10,000 installed and go up from there.  Grants are available for both efficiency systems.  For a solar water heating system, $2,500 in grants are available to Ontario homeowners under the ecoENERGY Retrofit Program for Homes.  $1,500 in grants are available for installation of a condensing boiler. 


Solar 101 

With the introduction of the Green Energy Act in Ontario this past year, interest in all things solar is at an all time high.  "Selling electricity back to the grid" has captured the imagination of a public seeking to divorce itself forever from utility bills. 

But as this blog entry indicates, solar is not just about selling back to the grid.   There’s a lot more to it than that. 

Over the next short while, my goal is to lay out a primer – Solar Energy 101 – on this blog to help fill in the larger picture.  The potential for solar energy is enormous.  And while the technology in many cases is decades old, it remains undeveloped and in its infancy in terms of consumer adoption.   

Over the coming weeks, my posts will attempt to fill in this picture by exploring the following: 

  1. Solar 101 – passive solar 
  2. Solar 101 – solar electricity 
  3. Solar 101 – solar how water heating 
  4. Solar 101 – solar space heating 
  5. Solar 101 – the next generation of solar energy 

Hope you’ll stay tuned.  

Gabriel Draven 

October 2009