Imagine a future where kilometre-wide solar arrays orbit the planet, beaming the sun’s energy to transmission stations on Earth.

In October 2007 the U.S. Pentagon’s National Security Space Office announced it was interested in exploring just such a concept. While the Pentagon’s interest is related to supporting global military operations remotely, the development of solar space technology could change the way the world uses energy.

There is just one problem: even if future studies and funding are forthcoming, the launch of the first satellite could be as far away as 2030, or more realistically, 2050. Finding abundant, non-polluting energy by tapping into space-based solar panels is just one of many promising ideas popularized by the mass media each year.

There are ubiquitous and glowing stories about fuel cells, wind farms, geothermal energy and solar technology. But more often than not, the technologies in question are decades away from practical implementation.

So what alternatives are available right now to homeowners seeking to wean themselves from the communal power grid? British Columbians enjoy some of the lowest energy prices on the continent, and as a result, the financial incentive is practically non-existent. That said, real incentives do exist. We currently rely on importing some of our energy from polluting sources, and the province’s goal of energy self-sufficiency by 2016 depends on small hydro projects, whose effect on the environment is subject to debate, and includes coal and natural gas as fuel sources.

A few local energy pioneers make it clear that the answer involves experimenting with new ways to produce heat and electricity at home, and more importantly, making our homes less reliant on power of any kind in the first place.

A visit to the semi-rural Highlands area, just north of Victoria, provides an early glimpse of what alternative energy might look like one day in Vancouver. The nearly completed home of Gordon and Ann Baird sits on three acres. Within a cob structure of their own design, the Bairds are experimenting with future energy alternatives that are so novel that the couple have struggled to get local electrical and plumbing inspectors to recognize them as legal.

The floor is earthen, and the walls are made from an insulating mixture of straw, clay and sand. The family’s grey water is recycled, all rainwater is collected, and the composting toilet literally digests its own waste. Handling 85 per cent of the work themselves, the Bairds expect their home to cost $258,000 (including labour) by the time it is completed in May this year.

Yet these features are secondary to the combination of solar and wind energy technologies that have been incorporated into the design. For at least eight months a year, solar energy will power their appliances and heat their house and water. Twelve solar photovoltaic panels on their roof feed into an inverter, at which point a small battery bank ties in to the BC Hydro electrical grid.

The solar panel feeds the batteries until they are full, after which point the excess solar energy is fed to BC Hydro, which will buy any power the Bairds do not use as part of Hydro’s Net Metering program. During cloudy winter months, the couple will be able to draw on the BC hydro grid as they need to.

Gord implants a time capsule in the wall
of their cob house.

The photovoltaic panels on the Bairds’ roof contain silicon semiconductors that produce electricity when exposed to sunlight. Considered among the cleanest and safest methods of power generation, this technology is also among the most expensive for home use. A basic photovoltaic home system for a house already on the main grid costs about $16,000 installed, and provides a peak summer output of seven kilowatt hours (kWh) a day. A more advanced system with back-up batteries and a peak summer output of 10 kWh a day is about $36,000 installed. A typical Canadian home that uses electricity for heating, lights and appliances consumes 64 kWh a day on average throughout the year.

One of the incentives for using solar photovoltaic power is that a homeowner can sell any excess power back to the utility, offsetting the costs of setting up the system in the first place. In other parts of North America, home generators are paid anywhere from $0.20 to $0.40 per kWh as an incentive to encourage this clean generation; BC Hydro, clearly behind the times, will pay the Bairds just over $0.06 per kWh for any surplus power they generate using their photovoltaic system.

At that rate, the system is never likely to pay for itself in savings from the monthly Hydro bill, but for the Baird family – Ann, Gord and two young children – the incentive in building their home was never financial. Gord’s epiphany came indirectly, after his first marriage ended in divorce and he suddenly found himself a single father, working 12-hour days for his auto-body business. “I was living the bigger, better, faster lifestyle where I never saw my kids because I was too busy making money to buy more stuff,” he explains.

He simplified his life, and with that came a profound awareness of the environment, which was spurred on by concerns for his children’s future. In marrying Ann, Gord found a partner with a like-minded commitment for sustainability through renewable energy.

“The driving force in building this house was climate change,” he says. “We asked, ‘What can we do in our own little way to help?’”

Both Ann and Gord were intrigued by the research and experimentation required to design the alternative-energy systems in their home. In addition to solar photovoltaic, they installed 60 solar thermal tubes on their roof, and with that, hot water stored in a 120-gallon storage tank not only provides hot water, but is pumped through the building to heat the rooms.

Ann and Gord plan to install wind power on the site after they receive their final electrical inspection. Their energy generation from wind will be small – about 500 watts – but Baird speaks excitedly about new approaches he hopes to employ. These include “vertical axis generators” with multiple propellers that run lengthwise along a pole, which require less maintenance and, unlike many systems, are able to exploit winds from any direction.

Alternative-energy sources are only one part of the equation. What makes the Bairds’ energy systems feasible – in particular the solar photovoltaic – is the level of energy efficiency they have built into their home. For instance, Baird estimates that their appliances use one-sixth the power of even the best commonly available Energy Star fridges or freezers. “If you bought enough solar panels to maintain the way power is consumed in Vancouver currently, it would be way too expensive to do this,” Gord explains.
The average Vancouver fridge would require eight of Baird’s photovoltaic solar panels. Because he’s only got a total of 12, his fridge needs to work on just one panel, and his freezer on two. The remaining nine panels are needed to power all the other household items, including two computers and a printer, lights, stereo, a washer (they do not have a dryer), and the pumps for their well and solar hot-water system.

They have achieved this breakthrough efficiency on two fronts: in the design and wiring of the house itself, and the way they use power. None of their appliances or devices draw power when not in use, all their heating pumps for the house are 24-volt DC pumps, and their lights are all 24-volt LED lighting, because incredibly, “compact fluorescent bulbs are just too wasteful.”

“I don’t think of myself as a pioneer,” says Baird. “To us, all of this just seems like common sense.”

Josh and Tamara Berson with son Noah.

Whether he knows it or not, Josh Berson is an alternative-energy pioneer too, although it is not obvious looking at his three-storey house at Ontario Street and West 23rd Avenue in Vancouver. From ground level, you can barely see the two solar panels (measuring 1.2 metres by 2.4 metres) mounted on his roof, on a secondary roofline to face south.

The two panels are part of the professional photographer’s domestic solar hot-water heating
system – the second such system he has operated in the city. The first one was installed on the same roof in 1999, making him the first Vancouverite to use the solar energy to heat his household water using the rays of the sun.

Today, the solar hot-water system Berson employs is the most practical and cost-effective
alternative-energy application available to Vancouverites, even in a climate where cloud trumps sunlight for at least five months of the year.

Berson’s system works like this: water is piped up to the roof, where it is heated as it
circulates through the panels, then it flows into a 60-gallon tank in his laundry room.
Currently Berson’s family – wife, child and his two parents – get 90 per cent of their hot water straight off the roof during summer. During spring and fall, there is enough sunlight to pre-heat their household water, which is then fully heated using two on-demand water heaters.

The tiny Japanese on-demand water heaters only warm water when the tap is turned on, compared to traditional hot water tanks, which constantly warm a large quantity of water in a tank. The on-demand heater makes a huge water tank unnecessary, replacing it with a space-saving solid-state device that is up to 86 per cent efficient (compared to about 45 per cent for typical hot water tanks.) Although these heaters are very popular in Europe and Japan, they are very new here. They go by various names, but if you search “on-demand” or “tankless” water heater at Canadian Tire or another supplier, you’ll find a model for around $200.

Mixing the latest conventional technology with solar is the perfect energy system for the southern B.C. climate. Berson’s advice to anyone interested in solar hot water is to wait until they do renovations before installing it, due to the need to route the pipes between the roof and tank.

Solar-heated water is stored in a tub
in the laundry room

“It’s really easy to do,” he says. “I have no idea why anybody who is doing renovations is not doing this. You’ve got plumbers in the house, the rafters are exposed, and you’re spending the money anyway.”

His latest solar hot water system, installed two years ago, cost $5,000, which he says will be recouped in several years. However, he thinks people should stop obsessing about getting every cent back.

“When you build a new kitchen, it’s not like every time you open a cupboard you ask, ‘Am I getting payback?’ With the solar hot water, I tell people the first shower costs $5,000, and every one after that is free.”

A pricier move will be installing photovoltaic solar on his roof, which Berson is planning to do in the near future, although he concedes the economics are harder to justify. “Solar hot water is just pipes; it’s really simple stuff. The solar electricity, that’s really complicated. With our current system, the worse thing that can happen is that you will have a cold shower.”

Self-educated homeowners like Berson may be ready to take the plunge into the complex world of photovoltaic solar, but for most Vancouverites alternative energy in any form is simply not there yet. According to Kevin Pegg, owner of Victoria’s Energy Alternatives Ltd., (a company that has designed, supplied and installed alternative power systems in B.C. since 1984), homeowners should initially focus on maximizing energy efficiency before making any big changes.

“Any house in Vancouver, if you haven’t done any energy efficiency, you can cut your power bills in half right now without a lot of pain,” he says. “Cutting the first 50 per cent is really easy; it’s cutting the remaining half that gets progressively harder and more expensive.”

Pegg says conservation is a tough sell in B.C. today because British Columbians have been spoiled for decades by some of North America’s cheapest energy, so being wasteful is not really that expensive to the consumer.

“Energy in B.C. is almost too cheap to meter, and cheap energy is also the largest competitor to renewable energy,” says Pegg. “If your price of power was three times what it is right now, we’d be doing a lot more renewable energy deployment in B.C.”

Gains in energy efficiency realized by simple steps are so great that even in B.C.,
significant financial rewards are possible for very little effort. And given the lengths many of us will go to source the cheapest gasoline and consumer goods, it’s surprising that more of us aren’t looking toward our houses for considerable savings.

“There are huge efficiency gains we can make by simply asking, ‘How can I spend less money on energy?’” says Nicholas Heap, climate and energy policy analyst at the David Suzuki Foundation. “All you have to do are the things that benefit you in terms of payback.”

Heap says government and the private sector have an important role to play in helping consumers realize the benefits of energy efficiency: manufacturers can design appliances and household devices that do not waste energy in standby mode. Developers can build all new homes to maximize passive solar warming (for example, maximizing south-facing windows), and build in the infrastructure necessary to run solar hot water systems – a cost that typically amounts to about $12 worth of piping.

Then there’s BC ­Hydro, which in December 2007 re­affirmed its ambitious conservation target to acquire 50 per cent of BC Hydro’s incremental resource needs through conservation by 2020. What this means is that despite the projected growth in population and demand, BC Hydro plans to do much more with much less by aggressively promoting consumer home-energy efficiency and conservation.

Heap, who served on a stakeholder panel evaluating BC Hydro’s conservation goals leading up to the announcement, says the goal is attainable. “We found that BC Hydro could indeed meet that 50-per-cent target, and that doing so could save as much as $700 million in costs,” he says, adding that the panel “concluded that the purchase, installation and maintenance costs of implementing [the easiest] level of electricity savings were half that of building new generation supply.”

To many Vancouverites, the goal of creating such a conservation culture by 2020 might seem as pie-in-the-sky as solving the world’s energy problems by launching fleets of high-tech power satellites into space.

But closer to Earth, the first steps toward attaining the promise of alternative energy are happening today, and it is as simple and mundane as replacing a light bulb.