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Friday, November 5, 2010

Can Halifax be Canada's "Solar city"?

Plan would have city pay upfront costs of solar water heating systems.

Posted By on Fri, Nov 5, 2010 at 3:42 PM

Halifax can become “Canada’s solar city,” says Richard MacLellan, the city’s manager of sustainability. MacLellan has brought forward a bold plan: the city will not only pay all the upfront costs for homeowners to install solar water systems, but will also figure out all the bureaucratic hassles, arrange government rebates and negotiate with the contractors who install the systems.

MacLellan thinks the city could help install between 500 and 700 systems a year, and that it wouldn’t cost the city a penny, and won’t cost homeowners any upfront money. In fact, the city might make money on the program.

If implemented, the program will work like this: the city will be loaned $5 million through the Federal Canadian Municipalities’ Green Municipal Fund, a program funded by the federal government, at very low-interest rates. There might also be the potential for $1 million in grants. That money will be used to hire and train a couple of city employees to work the program, and to pay for the upfront installation costs of the solar heating systems. Because the city will be purchasing at such a large scale, it expects to get significant cost savings through the tendering process---which will include not just purchasing the equipment, but also hiring the contractors to install it. The city workers will assess the potential for solar on individual properties, and arrange for all the provincial and federal rebates. The homeowners will pay for the system through a annual bill that comes with their property tax---it will depend on the house, but typically the homeowner will pay $400, while their annual energy savings are $500, so the homeowner is still saving $100 each year.

Halifax council warmly received the idea Tuesday, and directed MacLellan to work out all the details and bring the full plan back. There are some minor changes in provincial law that need to be implemented, the funding secured and a public outreach program initiated, but MacLellan thinks the program could be up and running by next fall.

My solar water heating system

I had a solar water heating system installed on my house a couple of months ago---the picture above shows the tanks in my basement. It's a Thermo Dynamics system, installed by Doctor Solar.

It's a very simple system. We're a household of two, so we only needed one 4' x8' solar panel, which was placed on the roof. Larger households would need two panels, typically.

The panel heats an antifreeze fluid, which in turn runs through a pipe down to the basement, where the water tanks are.

A traditional water tank is a simple operation---water from the water main out in the street comes into the tank, where is it heated by electricity or fuel oil. The water in the water main can be quite cold, especially in winter, so heating it up to the point where you can take a shower with it takes a lot of energy.

My new water heating system cuts that energy usage by instead heating up the water from the street with the sun. It accomplishes this with the use of a solar storage tank---that's the big 60 gallon tank on the right. The antifreeze runs through a heat exchanging system-- the little box on the far right. The heat exchange unit has a pump, powered by a separate solar voltaic panel-- a 1' x 1' panel that's attached to the main panel on the roof.

Cold water at the bottom of the solar storage tank is pumped through the heat exchange unit, is heated, and is dropped back onto the top of the tank. On a sunny day, this can become quite hot.

The solar-heated water in the solar storage tank then becomes the input into a regular electric water heater, in my case a 40-gallon tank (on the left). Because the water is much hotter going into the tank than it would be if it were coming straight from the street, the electric heater doesn't have to operate as much. That's where the energy savings come in.

We're still learning how the system performs. On sunny days, you can hear the motor spinning away, but even on overcast days there's a significant amount of solar heating going on-- the motor just spins a little more slowly.

In both tanks, the hottest water is at the top of the tanks. This is quite interesting, as I discovered one day when the electricity went out completely. As I began to run the shower, the coldish water from top of the (turned off) electric tank was drawn off, but was replaced by the very hot water from the top of the solar storage tank, and then that began running through the shower---my shower was as hot as ever.

Obviously, we're still using electricity, just not as much. It's too early to tell exactly how much money we're saving, but I suspect the highest savings will come in the winter months, when the water coming into the house is at its coldest.

I'm quite happy with the Thermo Dynamic system, and Jim and Nick Allen at Doctor Solar could not be more helpful. They were a joy to work with, and I recommend them. They accomplished the work in two afternoons.

The only real drawback to the system is I'm overly excited about it. I wish I could more closely monitor it, and so some thermostats on the tanks would be helpful, and an electric meter. But that's just me being geeky.

As for costs, my situation is a bit atypical, in that we also switched from a leased water tank to owning it outright with the new system, so we had to buy two, not just one, tank, along with the rest of the system. But, the entire set-up cost $7,200, including (as I recall) about $600 for the tanks. We'll get a federal and Nova Scotia Power rebate, bringing the cost down to about $5,000, but we still have to go through the hassles of an energy assessment and filing the paperwork. The fact that the city is proposing to bring all those bureaucratic hassles under its purview is the most attractive part of MacLellan's suggestion, in my opinion.

Still, we figure the system will pay for itself in somewhere between seven and 10 years. We're using less energy, and have hot water when the power goes out. I really can't see a downside.

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