Canadian Consulting Engineer

Sun is shining for solar specialists

Since Ontario's government announced its Feed-in-Tariff program, companies have been falling over themselves to supply solar and other renewable technologies that will qualify for the generous contrac...

May 1, 2010   By Bronwen Parsons

Since Ontario’s government announced its Feed-in-Tariff program, companies have been falling over themselves to supply solar and other renewable technologies that will qualify for the generous contract price. No wonder, when the FIT program pays up to 80 cents for every kilowatt of energy generated. Photovoltaic and solar panels should be popping up on roofs all over the place soon.

In provinces like B.C. and Quebec, not so much. That’s because they don’t rely on “dirty” coal or nuclear plants and because their electricity is cheaper than Ontario’s, so there’s less incentive to tap the sun’s power.

What kind of a role can consulting engineers expect to have in the burgeoning solar market? In many cases, solar systems are supplied on a turnkey basis, and the equipment suppliers have their own engineers on staff. One firm of consulting engineers, however — Morrison Hershfield — has joined forces with a supplier to provide their own complete package of design services and equipment.

Currently the biggest role for consulting engineers is structural, ensuring that the building’s roof can support the solar/PV panels. A few consulting engineering companies like Genivar are also helping to design the large ground-mounted solar farms. It is still a relatively small group of engineers who do the specialized work in designing solar systems for buildings — precisely calculating solar angles, balancing the inputs and outputs, and selecting reliable equipment. Until now, these specialists have tended to be individuals or very small firms who, as one engineer explained it, worked at the grass roots level in solar technology “because they loved it.” Now they find themselves suddenly “on the tip of an iceberg” (bad metaphor) of an industry that has put them in demand.

Consulting engineers told us that before the FIT program, most of the work they did on solar systems remained as just studies. With paybacks of up to 30 years, the systems that did get built were more token displays, meant to signal that the building owner was virtuously green.

Now that the market is taking off, however, will wide-scale solar systems on buildings ever amount to much in terms of our overall energy supply?

It is doubtful that a commercial or institutional building of any size will be able to convert enough solar energy through photovoltaics to supply all its electricity needs all of the time.

Solar thermal technologies, which use solar radiation directly for heating air or water, are much more promising. As Ian Sinclair, P. Eng. of Enermodal Engineering points out on page 30, “From an energy perspective, solar thermal … is typically three to five times more efficient than PV in converting the sun’s rays into useful energy.” Solar thermal systems are also much cheaper.

Ground source heat pump systems — the other focus of this special issue — are also efficient and have huge potential as long as they’re developed carefully (see Jana Levison’s article on page 14). They are not included in Ontario’s FIT program, but the industry is growing steadily and prospering, even without the government support.


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