Creating a renewable energy house on Whitby campus

Going green has become a phenomenon with the rising popularity of electric cars and reducing waste but Ontario is lagging in terms of renewable energy according to Robert Heale, a professor of renewable energy at Durham College. On the Whitby campus students and instructors are working to combat the misconceptions about renewable energy with a project of their own, a self-sufficient house.

The house features a solar panel on its roof as well as a solar panel that tracks the sun utilizing two sensors on either side of the panel and a motor that turns the panel to always face where it can absorb the most energy. It also has its own windmill, though it’s much smaller than industrial ones.

The house is home to a “ghost family”, a computer that turns on appliances like a washing machine or a dryer to consume energy at scheduled times to emulate a real family and their power consumption while the windmill and solar panels generate power to meet the family’s needs.

Even though the energy production at the house is excellent Heale says he can’t believe how much resistance there is to renewable energy and how much misinformation and lies have affected the way people think of wind and solar farms.

“One of the big arguments against incorporating renewable energy is that wind doesn’t blow every day, the sun doesn’t shine at night,” Heale says. “The myth there is that how we’re generating electricity now can’t be changed and that’s a falsehood that’s being propagated by the people that we pay for electricity.”

According to Heale, solar panels on a roof could generate more power in a day than residents could use even on cloudy days and could still generate power to be stored overnight since moonlight is reflected sunlight.

“If everybody did it, if every house had it, our problems would be solved. Everybody would be basically self-sufficient,” Heale said.

Solar panels are a prudent choice for renewable energy in residential spaces because they can go on the roofs of houses and businesses without taking up as much space as a wind farm but utilizing both could be better for Ontario.

The average cost of solar panels for a mid-sized home is approximately $30,000 and up but government programs like MicroFIT help subsidize those costs. According to the MicroFIT website, people who put solar panels on their roofs will be paid a guaranteed price on 20 year contracts.

The MicroFIT price schedule lists rooftop solar generation as being paid 38.4 cents per kilowatt per hour. According to the Canadian Home Workshop website, installations in the $30,000 range generate approximately 22 kilowatts in a day which means residents could make about $8.44 per day. Stretched over a month that could mean $253.44 which could heavily offset energy costs.

Through the MicroFIT program homeowners sell the power that their panels generate back to the province, it doesn’t necessarily serve their own house. The province also doesn’t help finance the solar panels, however $253.44 in monthly revenue adds up to approximately $56,505 over 20 years, which more than covers the initial investment.

Homeowners have the alternative choice of using their solar panels to be self-sufficient but their only profit would be that which they save on hydro usage.

“Where it’s kind of a no brainer would be when you’re talking about a building environment. Especially in a residential building the roof space is wasted space, it’s only there to shed rain,” Heale said. “So if we were to cover that roof with solar panels you’re turning that useless space into something useful. We’re going to make energy with it, we’re going to try to reduce our dependence on energy that’s being created hundreds of miles away at a nuclear facility.”

The only cost for solar panels beyond purchase and installation is in keeping it clean. Due to solar panels not having moving parts, like wind turbines, they require less maintenance and service.

Heale says some of the more outlandish claims about wind farms involve how they kill birds, cause cancer, make milk go sour inside cows, kill worms to make land desolate, and that the concrete emits greenhouse gases.

A recent study from Health Canada says that there are no health effects to having wind turbines and there is little evidence about the rest as windmills have been used in Europe for decades.

The renewable energy house also makes use of new technologies like an electric water pump that, once installed, will heat the concrete foundation of the house and use that same heat to generate steam within the pump to generate its own electricity.

The house on Whitby campus is still a work in progress and some of the technology still has to be set up but Heale is happy with the energy production and even thinks the windmill powering the house could be replaced with a larger one given how much energy it generates. Students will continue building the house, monitoring its energy consumption, and install new technology next semester.