Solar heating industry sees staggering growth
- by Bruce Nagy
The sun releases enough energy in one hour to power the earth for an entire year. There has to be a business model that can take advantage of this. Growth in sales of solar equipment was predicted at 84 percent in 2009, following a very good 2008. In 2008 the industry forecast predicted 38 percent growth. It achieved 52 percent. These numbers are diluted by manufacturing and exports; but for many Canadian solar thermal installers, the growth has been even more dramatic. "Business has doubled in the past year," says Tom Allen, Design Engineer at Thermo Dynamics Ltd. in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. "We lost some big Quebec projects when EcoEnergy shut down, but there are a lot of good signs," he added. "The industry is growing exponentially," says Kevin Monsour, vice president of partner development for RESCo Energy Inc., of Toronto. The company installs solar thermal, geo-thermal, small wind and photovoltaic systems. "It's a paradigm shift," says Victoria Hollick, vice president of operation for SolarWall, with Canadian headquarters in Toronto. "Solar is being catapulted to the forefront of the alternative energy industry." SolarWall makes solar pre-heating systems for industrial, commercial and large residential heating applications. "We've been expanding over the past four years with real positive growth," says Rob Waters at Viessmann Manufacturing Co., of Waterloo, Ont. The company has supplied sizable commercial projects including a 200-collector array at a recreation centre in Halifax and 50 collectors at the Toronto Zoo. Waters says the economics for solar heated domestic hot water are very strong and the company seeks commercial and institutional projects where a lot of hot water is needed. They work on government buildings, penitentiaries and are currently supplying 13 schools with six flat plate collectors and two 120-gallon internal coil storage tanks at each. However, he adds: "There may be some uncertainty coming because some of the incentives are ending."
This SolarWall installation at a Manitoba Community Housing project supplements the forced air heating system.
"There are all kinds of people currently being attracted to the industry; some good, some amateurs," says Bob Swartman, CEO at Solcan Ltd. in London, Ontario. "We need these people as the industry expands, but they will have to be properly trained." Bob is a solar thermal heating veteran, whose company manufactures, distributes and installs solar thermal technology. It is now beginning to focus on expansion to the U.S. "In the past few years we've gone from six dealers to 50 dealers and from 20 people at head office to about 70," says Shawn Sangret, vice-president, marketing for Premier Solar Inc. in Vancouver. "We're selling tens of thousands of kits worldwide," says Colleen Simmons of Enersol Solar Products, a solar swimming pool heating kit producer in Guelph, Ontario. About 60 percent of the company's products are installed in Canada.
Entering the business
"We're looking for dealers," added Simmons. She points out that swimming pool heating offers customers a quick payback of about 1.5 years. "People pay more to heat their pools than they do to heat their homes." And the even bigger future potential is in municipal pools, hotel pools and other commercial operations. For these projects there are still some significant incentives to be had, making the business case even stronger. Another easy sell for contractors is SolarWall for industrial buildings. This is especially true for new construction, because the SolarWall system, which essentially displaces the siding, is designed to provide energy savings of 20 to 50 percent by preheating the air in forced air heating systems. Even on retrofits, SolarWall paybacks are usually less than eight years, reports the manufacturer. Solar domestic hot water heating makes sense in commercial and multi-unit residential buildings. Last year Doctor Solar of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia installed 40 Thermo Dynamic collectors at a condominium complex to help reduce a $15,000 annual water heating bill.
On a frigid Prairie day, this Alberta system with solar hot water (below) and photovoltaic (above) panels by Boyd Solar is still picking up considerable energy.
To prove their case, they added a monitoring system consisting of temperature sensors, flow sensors, and current switches. Pump data is logged minute-by-minute and computations can be seen any time at www.welserver.com/WEL0173. The site shows the daily and monthly usage of domestic hot water, total energy produced, heating oil saved, and the CO2 offset. Savings are running at more than 7700 litres of oil per year or about 45 percent. The site also shows complete technical details on how the system was installed.
At a huge new Air Miles building in Ontario, RESCo Energy Inc. installed a solar thermal array producing five MWh/year of solar thermal energy, delivering about 34 percent of the required hot water load. The roof of the building also features the largest photovoltaic installation in the country. Also combining solar thermal panels and PV in a sunshade arrangement (over the party deck on the roof) is a net-zero condominium in Montreal called Le Soleil. Developed by Constructions Sodero of Mont St-Hilaire, the same company will build a larger project next door, again with net-zero energy use. This time, they plan to forego PV and geothermal and instead do space heating and domestic hot water all with solar thermal hydronics and a highly advanced building envelope. Contractors should be warned that the sun doesn't always shine on this business. Solcan installed a beautiful 30-collector hot water system at a nursing home in Durham. They used RETscreen, a popular modeling software, to predict energy savings of 200 gigajoules (GJ) against demand for 679 GJ or about 30 percent. The model was confirmed using another predictive tool called WATSUN. Calculations included load, collector area, tilt, azimuth, input water temperatures, tank & pipe losses, dirt, snow and local weather data.
A typical large solar DHW installation, this design cut the water heating bill substantially for a Nova Scotia condominium complex.
Yet the actual saving was 183 GJ, not 200. That may not seem like a huge deal, but usually the actual savings are higher than the model. The customer asked for an explanation. Even with 30 years of solar experience, Swartman was stumped until he happened to be chatting with a local pilot who said that for some reason a big blanket of smog regularly settles itself down, right in the middle of the area in question.
Cold temperature solar
"Even in Alberta, where natural gas is inexpensive, there has been considerable interest in solar," says Erhard Hermann, chief designer of for Boyd Solar Corp. in Didsbury. "Photovoltaic systems get a lot of interest from governments facing energy shortages and from the press, but solar thermal heat is more efficient at 70 or 80 percent than photovoltaic down around 20 percent." In the frigid temperatures of the Prairies, installers such as Kelln Solar of Lumsden. Sask. hang panels vertically on south walls down low to capture low angled rays and reflection off the snow, reported company president Ken Kelln.
A heat exchanger separates the solar loop from the DHW loop in this nursing home installation by Solcan.
Boyd has been successful with solar-thermal, by pre-testing system designs and designing a custom control system for the local climate. It has fewer complicated menus and is easier to connect (visit erhardselectric.com). In one case they heated an entire house and supplied most of its domestic hot water with 20 collectors. In most cases, their solar space heating systems supplement a radiant hydronic slab heating system. If Boyd and Kelln can make a good living in oil-rich, sub-zero Alberta, it might be time for more Canadian contractors to take a look at business models that use energy from the sun for heating and hot water.
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