Passive Design, Active Results

We are slowly learning that we have the knowledge and technology to eliminate a lot of today’s conventional home energy use. The latest example is a passive solar home built in Innisfil. The outstanding feature is that it is built without the need for a conventional furnace. The south facing home is very highly insulated, sealed and uses passive solar gain. It’s no surprise that the builder and owner formerly worked with the Kortwright Centre for Conservation.

I first wrote about passive solar and net-zero energy construction a few years ago so it’s encouraging to know that the concept is finally attracting wider practical application and real world experience under our local conditions. Importantly, municipal authorities are learning to recognize this certification standard.

We’re able to learn about some of the technical details from a recent news article at Simcoe.com (Home builder lives without furnace in passive house, July 13, 2017). The home’s ‘raft’ foundation has a styrofoam base below concrete and the walls are “double stud” allowing for an R65 insulation factor. Notably, the owner says they have “come up with a wall [insulation] system just as efficient without adding significant cost.” Certainly the budgeted cost of ducting and furnace could be applied instead to this use.

An energy recovery ventilation (EVR) unit runs continuously to ensure a proper air circulation and stable temperature within the airtight building envelope. Surprisingly, energy-efficient windows came from Ireland. The article didn’t indicate what distinguished them from so many possible local window suppliers. Solar panels are being added to the home as well.

This type of approach continues to be a ‘pay now or pay later’ proposition. The builder suggests it could be offered as a “luxury option” in subdivisions with a pay-back over 20 years. Otherwise, potential home-buyers could just opt for conventional construction and take a chance with future energy prices or ‘move up’ later when energy efficient techniques become more widely adopted. Passive solar design and ‘net zero’ energy technology makes even more sense for multi-unit construction where the benefits are likely to be more easily achieved.

There is another option. Builders could consider a better trade-off between home size and efficiency. I walked through a builder’s ‘luxury’ model home recently out of curiosity. My wife remarked, “I could be happy with half of this house!” to which another couple immediately responded, “Great! I’ll buy the other half!” Maybe an enterprising builder can recognize an opportunity to make ‘less’ equal ‘more’.

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Councillor Seeks InnPower Sale

UPDATE: One councillor, Richard Simpson, supported Mr. Daurio’s motion (below). Deputy Mayor Dollin suggested he was making the motion for ‘his friends’ at Alectra – an accusation Mr. Daurio attributes to the fact that he relied on financial figures provided by Alectra. Dollin also suggested that a $25 million charge was made to Barrie when joining Alectra – something Mr. Daurio describes as “an opportunity for Barrie to invest in the purchase of Brampton hydro and earn an additional $5m annually in interest and dividends forever!”. Daurio contends that “Alectra had promised a 14% rate reduction, and interest and dividends and other savings of $4m annually, while InnPower promised a rate increase and little/no dividends for  the next 6 years — a loss to Innisfil of $8m annually, and $48m over the next 6 years.” Under existing procedural rules, the subject will not be revisited at Council for a year.

This Wednesday, June 7, Councillor Stan Daurio is moving a motion at Innisfil Council “that the Board of InnPower be requested to explore options to sell or partner with Alectra and/or other utilities…”.

The saga of missteps at InnPower is already well known: an ill-fated attempt at joint ownership with Edmonton-owned Epcor Utilities Inc.; an overly ambitious investment in new facilities based on the assumption of leasing space to Epcor; an urgent need for alternative InnPower financing when the deal collapsed; a six year suspension of dividend payments to Innisfil; loans from the Town and Simcoe County plus an application for a rate increase to cover the cost of mandated expansion of service to newly designated urban areas.

In light of the current popular uproar over electricity rates, Councillor Daurio argues it would be more beneficial to sell our local utility to Alectra, which was formed from the merger of municipally-owned Enersource, Horizon Utilities and Powerstream plus the acquisition of Hydro One Brampton as of February of this year. Headquartered in Mississauga, Alectra’s service area encompasses 1,800 square kilometres and serves nearly a million customers in 15 communities from Alliston to St. Catharines and Hamilton to Vaughan. Alectra is now “the second largest municipally-owned electric utility by customer base in North America”.

Councillor Daurio puts the minimum value of InnPower at $40 million (2015 estimate) and expects a dividend return of 4.4 to 4.5% or $1.8 million annually. Additionally, the former Powerstream told Council in 2015 that a merger would lower electric bills in Innisfil by $23/month. This would be equivalent to savings of $4.4 million annually for 16,000 Innisfil households.  Continue reading

Green Affordable Energy

I occasionally still see a comment or letter suggesting that abolishing the Green Energy Act would somehow remedy concerns about high electricity prices. When I read about advances in renewable energy that idea seems to be the least sensible approach.

Here are some of the things I’ve noticed lately:

  • Solar cells are becoming more efficient. Solar panels typically capture 23% of energy. A special reflective dish arrangement claims to boost this to 34% (EcoWatch, “5 solar innovations revolutionizing the world”)
  • “Battery technology is advancing and becoming more affordable. Tesla’s sister company, Solar city is offering Tesla batteries at a price point that’s more than 60% less than previous solar power storage products …” (EcoWatch, “5 solar innovations revolutionizing the world”)
  • “A subsidiary of Bouygues SA has designed rugged solar panels, capable of withstand the weight of an 18-wheeler truck, that they’re now building into road surfaces. After nearly five years of research and laboratory tests, they’re constructing 100 outdoor test sites and plan to commercialize the technology in early 2018… To resist the weight of traffic, Wattway layers several types of plastics to create a clear and durable casing. The solar panel underneath is an ordinary model, similar to panels on rooftops. The electrical wiring is embedded in the road and the contraption is topped by an anti-slip surface made from crushed glass.” (National Post, “Solar panel roads to be built on four continents…”)
  • “… Green Sun Rising earns its bread and butter building solar plants in isolated Canadian communities, many in the far North, that have generated all their power with diesel generators … People are often surprised Dohring can make a living selling solar power plants, like his latest on Banks Island in the Canadian Arctic, which has 10 weeks a year of constant darkness. However, if the sun never sets in summer, I have a nearly infinite amount of energy supply,” says Dohring (CBC News, “Green tech ready to step in when oil prices rise”)
  • “A U of T Engineering innovation could make printing solar cells as easy and inexpensive as printing a newspaper. Dr. Hairen Tan and his team have cleared a critical manufacturing hurdle in the development of a relatively new class of solar devices called perovskite solar cells. This alternative solar technology could lead to low-cost, printable solar panels capable of turning nearly any surface into a power generator.” (Journal News of the World, “Printable solar panels on the horizon says new research”)
  • “Scientists from Skoltech’s Institute of Problems of Chemical Physics, and Moscow State University have come up with inorganic perovskite solar batteries with tremendous efficiency, said Skoltech’s press service. The new devices exhibit very high efficiency in light conversion (10.5%) comparable with those of perovskite batteries based on classical hybrid materials (about 12%).” (Tass Russian News, “Russian scientists create highly- efficient, inorganic perovskite solar batteries”)
  • “… as of the 1st of January, 2017, all electric train rides in the Netherlands have become even greener. They are now entirely powered by clean, renewable, wind energy. Dutch railway companies, of which NS is by far the largest, teamed up with energy company Eneco in 2015 to cut train ride emissions drastically. Originally, 2018 was set as the target for changing to 100% renewable power sources. After having reached 75% in 2016, though, the 100% transition was completed one year ahead of schedule.” (Clean Technica, “All Dutch Trains Now Run 100% onWind Power”)
  • “Wind turbines in Scotland provided enough electricity to supply the average needs of almost all Scotland’s homes last month, according to a report. Data from Weather Energy showed turbines generated 792,717MWh of electricity to the National Grid in October, up more than a quarter on the same month last year. The amount is enough to supply the average needs of 87% of Scottish households, WWF Scotland said.” (Independent, “Scotland generates enough wind energy to power almost every household …”)
  • According to a US report, “There was a record amount of gas burned for power generation last year … But there was also a record amount of photovoltaics and the second highest amount of renewables that we have seen added in a year… The research shows that both gas and renewable energy are expanding at the expense of coal, says Zindler. The falling price of technology plus greater efficiency mean that solar panels and wind often remain cheaper than gas.” (CBC News, “Green tech ready to step in when oil prices rise”)
  • Four teenage girls figured out a way to use a liter of urine as fuel to get six hours of electricity from their generator. Fourteen-year-olds Duro-Aina Adebola, Akindele Abiola, and Faleke Oluwatoyin, and 15-year-old Bello Eniola displayed their invention this week at Maker Faire Africa in Lagos, Nigeria, an annual event meant to showcase ingenuity.” (Forbes, “Teens Create A Way To Use Urine As Fuel”)
  • Researchers at the University of Bath have developed an innovative miniature fuel cell that can generate electricity from urine, creating an affordable, renew‐ able and carbon-neutral way of generating power. In the near future this device could provide a means of generating much needed electricity to remote areas at very little cost, each device costs just £1-£2. (Science Daily, “Urine turned into sustainable power source for electronic devices”)

Our Electric Future – Renewable

It should be pretty clear by now that every aspect of life will be increasingly electrically driven in the near future. We’re not just talking about automobiles (there are something like 52 different models of electric and hybrid vehicles offered now). We might be plugging in toilets like the Propelair system (www.propelair.com) now being sold in Britain that uses water and compressed air for a 1.5 L flush. Computers and 3D printing are making huge advances in manufacturing: “In the next five years we will see what was seemingly science fiction-type research quickly make its way into mainstream processes in almost every industry.” (The Great Disruption, R Smith, D Free, 2016) So it is equally important that our electric resources be as affordable as possible.

Various missteps have led us to the situation where the delivery of electricity is more expensive than the power itself. While public outrage has grown over the cost of electricity in Ontario, there are conflicting ideas about how to correct the situation. The Ontario government is reconsidering how it buys electricity by becoming “technology agnostic”, i.e. not favouring any particular technology. It also has doubts about time-of-use pricing. Ontario’s Energy Minister went on to say:

People should have the flexibility to sign up for electricity plans that better suit their needs just like they can shop around for different telephone and Internet service plans”.

Wait! What? The people who brought us the useless basic ‘skinny’ cable TV packages and the world’s most expensive mobile phone rates are the model for future electric supply? Mobile phone and internet packages are like a corn field maze – it may look like a lot of choice, but in the end there is only one way out! That’s because these plans are not consumer driven but profit driven. ‘Bundled’ services show the price of everything, but not the price of anything. More reason for us to worry about the ongoing sale of Hydro One into more private ownership.  Continue reading

Energy and Alternatives

People continue to complain about the price of electricity because it is divorced from the cost of generating it. The IESO website lists the average weighted price in June at 2.02¢/kwh while the byzantine “global adjustment” is 9.55¢/kwh. The Ontario government’s commitment to sink $12.8 billion into refurbishing nuclear plants just contributes to uncertainty about price stability and affordability. Renewable energy alternatives appear more stable and predictable in comparison.

When I am at consumer shows I occasionally enquire about the cost and feasibility of solar panels. Aside from price, I have always been told that I have ‘too many’ trees on the property. It happened again last fall when an exhibitor asked my address and then thrust a tablet at me showing an overhead image of a dense tree canopy and said, “That’s your house”. I was taken aback because I know that my home is not totally obscured by trees. In spite of several mature trees, the rooftop does receive direct sunlight for a portion of the day. Never mind, I moved on. More recently I decided to use a government sponsored geographic mapping service available on the web to access an aerial view of my property. Sure enough, most of the roof was clearly visible. From now on, I think I’ll bring my own aerial photo along.  Continue reading

What a Year!

What a year that passed, and what a year to come! This blog set another new high mark for readership in 2015 with about 7,600 ‘views’ and 3, 500 visitors, mostly in Canada and the US but also from more than 40 other countries. (By accident or chance? I don’t know. If only they’d leave a comment.)

Canadians are facing many difficult challenges but are also making considerable strides since I began writing about local “sustainability” in 2011. Back then, I wrote about the Transition movement developing an “energy descent plan”. In 2015, we read about Vancouver voting to become petroleum-free by 2050. Frankfurt, Copenhagen, Munich, Seattle, Sydney and Lima have made the same commitment. We seem to have reached a point where we realize that our local efforts are just part of a global matrix trying to “sustain” our planet.

I hope to spend more time this year writing about innovative ideas, projects and emerging technologies. Here are some stories that I consider milestones, in a way:  Continue reading