Canadian Consulting Engineer

Feature

Renewables need solid government support

People in the solar thermal industry are feeling neglected these days. They’re wondering why the Ontario government’s FIT program favours photovoltaic systems (providing electricity) for buildings, and provides no subsidies for...


People in the solar thermal industry are feeling neglected these days. They’re wondering why the Ontario government’s FIT program favours photovoltaic systems (providing electricity) for buildings, and provides no subsidies for solar thermal technologies (providing heat).

But look at the federal government. It currently offers no subsidies or financial support to renewable energies at all. Natural Resources Canada’s “EcoENERGY for Renewable Heat” program expired in 2011 and there’s no sign of it being renewed. Yet according to CanSIA, the solar energy association, when the EcoENERGY program was operating it “kick started” Canada’s solar thermal industry so that it grew 40-50%. By the end of 2011 Canada had more than 1,000 MW of solar thermal capacity in operation. By comparison PV’s installed capacity at the end of 2010 was 290 MW.

Christian Vachon, ing., president of Enerconcept Technologies of Magog, Quebec, says that if governments were to give 15 cents a kilowatt-hour as a subsidy for solar thermal energy, then there would be a “Klondike Rush” and his business would be booming. Canada has already developed considerable expertise in this sector, so here is a 21st-century industry where we could make an impact worldwide. We are already home to the three largest solar thermal technology manufacturers in the world.

Vachon and many others are calling for consistent, long-term government subsidies for renewables. At a CMX-CIPHEX trade show in Toronto in March, panelists pointed out how susceptible the renewable energy industry is to waivering funding policies. Some wondered why governments are willing to invest in megaprojects like dams and nuclear power plants that have payback periods stretching over decades, but will only provide “sunset” funding programs for renewables. Consulting engineers can appreciate this point. There is no sense in building up a department of staff in solar or wind expertise if future business is uncertain.

Solar air collector panels need to be mounted on large expanses of blank wall, which are amply available in buildings like hospitals, schools, industrial plants and agricultural buildings. And while architects have shied away from the panels for aesthetic reasons, new panel types are translucent and can be mounted on white backgrounds. One has over 80% peak efficiency.

A 2007 Canadian solar project recently made its mark on the world stage. Drake’s Landing in Okotooks, Alberta is a subdivision of 52 houses which have 80% of their entire energy needs met by a solar-powered district energy and geothermal system, even in a northern latitude that suffers winter temperatures of –33 C. In Wels, Austria last November, the development was selected to win the Energy Globe World Award for Sustainability — the top award in an international awards program that had 1,000 entries from 100 countries.

Even in Alberta, not a province known to be big on government handouts, Drake’s Landing’s developers make a big point of saying that the project was only made possible through sponsorship and financial support from governments. Governments today should be listening.