By Roy L Hales
Back in the early 1970‘s, Canada led the world in the development of Solar Thermal energy. Then the oil embargo ended, prices came down, and the incentives and grants dried up. More than a decade passed before what had once been Canadian technology resurfaced in Germany. It became part of that nation’s “energiewende,” a state mandated green energy policy that has transformed Germany into the world’s foremost producer of solar energy. Yet, according to Canada’s only NABCEP Certified Solar Thermal Installer, James Smyth, there is more potential for solar thermal technology on the West Coast.
“Looking around the street where I live, I can see that every house could gain by adopting Solar Thermal energy,” he said.
Though his is the only house that presently has solar panels, James believes this will change.
“I have developed a new system at Camosun College that has an immediate payback under the Solar Colwood/CRD grant program,” James said. “Sales of this Thermal system are getting pretty good and I am now working on a solar heating system with a similar payback. Most thermal systems are in the $8000 to $10,000 installed. My new system is $5000 installed so this has been a game changer for the market.”
Thanks to a $3,000 Solar Thermal grant only available in Southern Vancouver Island, the average CamoSun Solar Thermal customer can receive an immediate reduction of about $264 a year on his energy costs. (That is assuming they finance the installation over 10 years.)
People living outside this area might experience a slight increase, at least up until BC Hydro increases their rates next April.
A $5,000 investment in solar nets a better return than a 2% GIC. While the GIC would produce around $8,000 in 20 years, solar makes $18,000. The returns get even higher when calculated over 30 year.
James has been installing solar for eight years, but his association with Victoria’s Camosun College began after he obtained his North American Board of Certified Practitioners (NABCEP) Solar Thermal Certification.
He and fellow instructor Darren Vaux developed and taught the college’s Solar training curriculum James & Darren were given Camosun College President’s award for their work on the solar program.
With the help of their students – and donations from companies like Apricus, Rheem, Viessmann, Caleffi, and Pacific Solar Smart Homes – they also built Canada’s largest Solar Thermal training lab at Camosun College
“The CamoSun system performed well during November/December, but once outside temperatures dropped below -5/-6 we lost more heat that we gained,” he said. “So we decided to drain the system, rather than risk damaging the collector.”
Now that the CamoSun Solar Thermal System has become a company, Smyth recommends customers drain their system during winter, “In applications where a home has south facing roof top, that is not obstructed by shading during the winter months, the system has the potential to gain some solar energy. However, the collectors should be mounted at 45 degrees or more to collect this energy when the sun is considerably lower in the sky. If the collectors are mounted at 24 degrees (typical 4-12 pitch) then they will not collect any significant solar energy if the sun does come out.
“I have done some measurements and the loss of performance on the CamoSun system is at best about 13% of its annual potential. At today’s utility rates this is about $40 of energy or about $10 a month. It does not seem practical to risk freezing the system and damaging the collectors for $40. This system was designed to provide home owners access to great solar gains and costs much less than traditional glycol or drain-back systems that are designed to work all year.
“I can still install glycol or drain-back systems if the home owners want to access the $40 savings on Solar energy during the winter months, but the truth is that we don’t see much solar during the winter so it doesn’t make financial sense to me to build a system that costs twice as much and only gains 13% more.”
James has installed around 30 of the 38 installations to date in the Solar Colwood program. He has also installed systems as far north as Cortez Island, Gambier Island, Lasqueti Island and Cobble Hill in off-grid applications. Pacific Solar has also installed systems in Edmonton Alberta, Vancouver BC and works with Pro Eco Energy to provide this technology across the rest of BC and Alberta.
He also installs Apircus’ solar evacuated tube system, which performs well in sub zero temperatures, it is a good choice for home owners/businesses that want to capture the winter solar energy. Under specific demands like a Laundromat, Carwash, hotel or some other large building that requires a large quantity of water during the winter months, solar thermal can make a lot of financial sense (or cents.)
BC Hydro’s electricity rates are among the lowest in North America, so it is unlikely that the government will set up incentives like you see in Ontario (where they are trying to find an alternative to Nuclear power). Yet James believes solar thermal technology could provide up to 60% of the province’s annual hot water needs and 100% during the summer months. Those numbers are similar to what is coming out of Germany and would result in lower energy bills as well as less greenhouse gas emissions.
He explained that a typical home uses, “25% of its total energy for hot water and 50% for space heating, the last 25% is for lights, outlets etc.”
(All images courtesy CamoSun Solar Thermal. Photo at top of page: PV/Thermal installation in Colwood, The four larger collectors are Thermal collectors and the 12 smaller collectors – James Smyth photo)