Feeling the heat: How climate is changing our world
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
The world’s cleanest heat will soon be tapped from inside a reservoir of dirt.
Huh? you say. Well, take a region that gets more sunshine hours per year than Greece, circulate solar-heated glycol into the ground for three summers and, presto, enough subterranean warmth builds up to keep 200 houses toasty for an entire winter.
This is not abstract theory. The Drake Landing development of 52 homes, with an average sticker price of $320,000, is sold out and more than a dozen families have moved in to claim Canada’s first solar-heated community as their home.
Except for the sharp rooflines on a row of garages plastered with 800 solar panels, it looks like any other housing development rising overnight in the frantic residential construction site that encircles Calgary.
The feature that makes these homes of environmental interest throughout North America is what lies below an innocuous patch of grass near an unmanned brick building in the middle of the complex.
That future playground covers 144 bore holes that penetrate 37 metres into the clay-rich soil. Solar-superheated glycol has begun turning the very ordinary soil beneath into a furnace that will send even the toughest earthworms scurrying for cooler climes.
The underground temperature will eventually hit 80 C. That’s when a utility manager using the click of a mouse on an Internet site will start glycol circulating through heat exchangers in every home, deploying summer-before energy from the sun to deliver 90 per cent of the average homeowner’s heating demand during long, cold Alberta winters.
By spring, with the bore holes cooling to room temperature, the process is reversed and the collection of solar energy begins anew.
Treean Landon, with husband Darrell and two young children, was the first to move into the solar section of the much larger development. Her family uprooted from a bigger home closer to Calgary’s downtown to chase this budding technology into outer suburbia.
"I’m a tree hugger. Guilty as charged," grins the young mother, who is saving to buy a hybrid car and takes her family out for walks to pick up trash. "I don’t think you can do too little for the environment."
The family will pay a fixed $60 per month in heating for the next five years, an amount that will only rise by the cost of living after that no matter how high fossil fuel prices soar.
But beyond certainty of energy costs and a warm and fuzzy green feeling, she’s happily discovered a sunny disposition among the neighbours.
"People make this place special. They’re not just from one walk of life, yet everybody is of the same environmental mindset," Landon says. "There’s a couple from Seattle moving here just because of the project. It makes for a great sense of community."
A few houses down the road, Dana Pugh and her oilpatch-employed husband John call themselves Yippees — yuppies who think they’re hippies. They’re planning to landscape their property in drought-resistant plants and buy a hybrid car, and her husband is hoping to switch to a job in alternative energy.
"We’re deeply concerned about the environment, but heat is the one thing you can’t do anything about, so this was an ideal solution for us," she says "We believe in the power of the consumer and we put our dollars behind it and I like to believe we’re helping this technology take off so the costs can come down."
That, of course, is the great divide between conventional and alternative energy-powered homes.
While the Drake Landing houses are reasonably priced by Calgary’s soaring real estate values, there’s a pile of government subsidies in this project.
That $7 million worth of public investment clearly delineates this as more of a demonstration project than economical reality. The subsidy works out to about $134,000 per house, or more than a third of the average sticker price, a tough sell even to the most righteous of tree huggers.
But solar looks increasingly bright not too far into the future, says Keith Paget, project manager for developer Sterling Homes. The energy centre, with its twin 120,000-litre above-ground tanks to meet short-term heating demand, could handle 200 houses. And the energy efficiency of solar technology is constantly improving, even while the per-panel price is decreasing, he says.
A feasibility study has been launched on the costs of expanding the technology to much larger subdivisions of single- and multiple-family dwellings. "We’re reaching the point where it’s starting to make economic sense," Paget says.
It’s not all clear skies for solar heating, however. Government support through tax incentives or rebates is severely limited and sporadic now, although Environment Minister Rona Ambrose hints solar- and wind-power incentives are coming in the upcoming climate-change package.
But within sight of Alberta’s energy headquarters, the sun is
heating up a groundbreaking technology.