Energy Award

Sun Harnessed in Project
By Kathy McCormick, The Guardian (Charlottetown) – May 12, 2005

Support is heating up for North America's first large-scale, seasonal-storage solar housing project.

The development is to be built in Drake Landing, United Communities' newest neighbourhood in Okotoks, Alta.

"The technology associated with this concept is long and complicated, but all we really need to know is that the homes will be snug and warm, thanks to the abundant sunshine in Alberta," says Bill Bobyk, general manager of Sterling Homes, which is under the Qualico umbrella.

The large-scale project of 52 solar-heated homes will be built by Sterling Homes with a unique technology that has only been used in selected countries in Europe over the past decade.

"Simply put, it captures the power of the sun and stores it in order to maintain indoor comfort for the homeowners," says Bobyk.

Sunlight is captured through solar panels mounted on interconnected garages.

The double garages for each homesite have continuous solar roofs separated by breezeways that are accessed by back alleys. The energy is stored in a borehole field under a neighbourhood park, and delivered back to the homes via hot water through underground, insulated pipes.

Each home's air is heated from the water, then distributed through the house using conventional forced-air ducts. Each home has its own thermostat, just like any other system.

"Alberta is a leader in this country," Senator Tommy Banks said at the recent launch, representing the federal government – which has kicked in $2 million for the project.

"It's the first large-scale solar project in North America and the first in the world to achieve this high of a degree of energy efficiency. The environmental benefits to the community and to those who live in it will set an example for years to come."

The goal is to provide Canadians with housing "that not only shelters comfortably, but does so responsibly," says Bobyk.

Besides the unique technology, the project has other sustainable features for homeowners, says Tyler Stevenson, project manager for United Communities. "In effect, it's an all-inclusive, turnkey sustainable house that uses green technology throughout."

Homes will be built to R-2000 and BuiltGreen Alberta gold standards – the highest attainable and the first such community in Alberta to be built to this level, says Banks.

It includes features such as six-litre, low-flush toilets, low-flow shower heads and Energy Star clothes washers and dishwashers.

"Water conservation standards are features of the whole community of Drake Landing," says Stevenson. Features such as xeriscaping – the practice of landscaping with slow-growing, drought-tolerant plants – and the use of rain barrels are already part of homes in United Communities' developments in Okotoks, as well as the golf course within the community of Crystal Green.

The 52 homes in Drake Landing will require about 30 per cent less energy than a conventional home, says Banks.

"Space and hot water heating are one of the largest users of energy, and this project addresses both," he says. "It's an innovative way to respond to climate change."

Research by the team developing the project reveals that 80 per cent of residential greenhouse gas emissions in Canada comes from space heating and domestic hot water heating.

By using solar energy, Drake Landing is expected to reduce those emissions by five tonnes per year for each house – about 260 tonnes per year for the whole project.

While the final price to buy the move-up homes hasn't yet been set, Bobyk estimates it to be in the range of $220,000 for home, lot and GST – comparable to other homes of the same size in the area.

"Homes will be around 1,600 to 1,800 square feet and priced the same as those in Crystal Shores (another United Community adjacent to Drake Landing in Okotoks)," says Stevenson.

"You're basically getting a super house for the same price. It's similar in size and has a detached, two-car garage, the solar domestic-heating system, and R-2000 technology and construction."

The technology is highly subsidized by various levels of government and the energy sector, which allows them to be priced as conventional homes, says Keith Paget, manager of special projects for Sterling.

"Government grants have been given to do the project, and a non-profit company will be running the system for the first four years," he says.

Ottawa has granted $2 million for the project, with Alberta kicking in $635,000.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities is the major donor, granting the project $2.9 million.

ATCO Gas is the project manager for construction and it will be responsible for the operation of the system.

"We are committed to support initiatives such as the large-scale solar heating project, which we believe will be commonplace to the future," said Jerome Engler, president of ATCO Gas, at the project's launch. "It will immediately contribute to a cleaner environment and decrease greenhouse gas emissions." Costs to heat the home will be similar to what it currently costs to heat a home with natural gas, says Paget. "That's approximately $60 a month, but as gas prices go up as expected over the longer term, these prices will remain fixed, so homeowners will notice a savings."

Okotoks was a natural choice for the project, says Stevenson.

"Okotoks is very progressive and known as an energy-conserving community," he says. "They are very much into sustainable development."

Okotoks Mayor Bill McAlpine agrees. "We're committed to building an environmentally sensitive and responsible community for people to optimize their quality of life," he says.

Sixty per cent of Okotok's municipal operations run on green electricity sources. Solar panels heat the town's swimming pool, provide hot water for resurfacing the ice arena, and warm the town's recycling centre.

"These research and development projects are giving something to future generations," says McAlpine.

Okotoks has already attracted international attention for its efforts, earning two environmental awards from the provincial government.

It also been recognized by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, a worldwide movement that attempts to improve global sustainability by focusing on local actions.

Six new solar show homes have just started construction, with an anticipated opening in July.