Energy Award

Solar panels produce 80% of heating needs
Byline: Joe Fries, Calgary Herald – May 26 2010

An alternative-energy experiment in Okotoks has reached a milestone thought to be a world first, and may now be on track to exceed its creators' expectations.

The 52 homes that make up the Drake Landing solar community are heated year-round by a circuit of pipes carrying water warmed by the sun.

It was announced Tuesday that after three years, the system is now meeting its intended target of supplying 80 per cent of the homes' heating needs. An overseer from Natural Resources Canada, which contributed $2 million to the project, said it's a relief the system has met the mark.

"It was a huge step for us to get back on track again," said Doug McClenahan, a solar thermal research and development program manager.

McClenahan said Drake Landing missed its first two annual targets by 10 to 15 per cent. But some tweaks, such as reducing the temperature of the water delivered to houses, helped correct the problem. It's now hoped the system, the first of its kind in North America, will exceed its five-year target of providing 90 per cent of the heat by a couple of points, although McClenahan said that dream is weather-dependent. He said similar systems are more common in Europe but typically meet just 50 to 60 per cent of their communities' heating needs.

Drake Landing will be showcased today during a panel discussion in Calgary at the Canadian Solar Industries Association conference, which is expected to attract 250 industry delegates.

Klym Bolechowsky and his wife were among the first to move to the community in June 2007. The former Vancouver resident said it was easy learning the technology in his $323,000 home.

"It's quite straightforward," said the environmental engineering consultant. "I didn't have to read a big manual or anything like that."

Bolechowsky, 40, said residents have become tight-knit, and gather for a barbecue to mark each summer solstice.

Residents pay a flat rate of $60 per month for heating.

Glycol is circulated through 798 panels on garage roofs to capture solar energy. A heat exchanger is used to transfer that energy to water, which is piped underground and then to the houses, where it warms up the interiors.

While underground, the water pipes heat into the earth around them, "charging" the system for use in colder months.

Last December, the system delivered 600 gigajoules worth of heat energy to the community.

One gigajoule is the energy equivalent of 30 litres of gasoline, according to Alberta Energy.

The homes are also expected to produce only 1.5 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually by 2012 – far less than the seven tonnes produced by the average home, according to project literature.

Real-time data from the Drake Landing solar thermal system is now available online at