Energy

A Place In The Sun

DAVID THOMAS January 23 1978
Energy

A Place In The Sun

DAVID THOMAS January 23 1978

A Place In The Sun

Energy

Quebec’s Eastern Townships are salted with neat, white clapboard villages established 10 generations ago by United Empire Loyalists—Americans fleeing chaos at home to create a new society, ordered and pure. Nick Nicholson is a straggler in that migration, but his mission is the same. Just outside the village of Ayer’s Cliff, a bit past the Tomifobia River which gurgles into Lake Massawippi, a road winds over and around low hills and ends at Nicholson’s domain. Snuggled among the snow-burdened pines and streams is a new community of dreams, a scattering of trim wooden homes whose impact on Canadian building and living eventually may be as great as the influence of the Loyalists. Here, Nicholson has created Canada’s first solarheated housing development.

A 48-year-old landscape architect, Nicholson quit a rich practice on New York’s Long Island to bring his family, in 1970, to the peaceful woodlands of southern Quebec. Turning to home building to finance his voluntary exile, he was the first entrepreneur in Canada to take the socalled soft (renewable) energy of the sun and submit it to the hard laws of the marketplace. Over the past four years, he has built 10 solar homes, half the total number in the country, proving the heating system to be commercially viable in Canada. He has shown the skeptics that solar heating is indeed more practical, more profitable, in the northern cold than under the southern sun. In the South, heating requirements are too low to justify the cost of solar systems, but in Canada, where home heating costs average $450 a season, solar systems quickly pay for themselves in saved fuel.

The newest of Nicholson’s constructions is a light-filled, two-bedroom house whose canted south wall is an expanse of solar collector aimed at the sun. It is designed to be heated for $50 a year. Set out of sight of anything but its own two acres of clearing and trees, the fully serviced house is for sale and the price, $45,000, is all that is needed to point to the commercial coming of age of solar heating in Canada. All of the homes were built and sold without government subsidy. As fuel prices continue their 10% annual climb and the cost of solar hardware drops with greater production, sun power may make the conventional bungalow as fashionable as a mud hut.

“When other builders ask whether it pays to construct a solar home, I ask them in return whether it makes sense to continue building now like we did 20 years ago,” says Nicholson, whose Solar Energy

Catalogue And Building Manual has spread his reputation as Canada’s solar sage. “There’s no real resistance to solar heating among builders,” he continues. “The problem is that they don’t have basic knowledge of the technology.” The most surprising thing about the solar system is its simplicity: air, sandwiched in a plastic and metal collector, is heated by the rays of the sun and distributed throughout the house by ducts similar to those found in homes warmed by an ordinary hot air system. Solar-heated air also passes through an underground store of crushed rock which accumulates heat for recovery at night and during days of thick overcast. Thermostats control air flow as well as a small electric backup heater for use in extended sunless periods. The whole system costs $5,200.

Established Canadian heating firms have been extremely wary of solar’s backto-the-land, new puritan image. As a result, they are being jumped from behind by such innovators as Nicholson and by farsighted multinational corporations poised to do for the sun what Henry Ford did for oil. Though major breakthroughs are still expected, the solar business has come a long way from the sun-powered herb dryer that was Nicholson’s first solar device. This spring, construction starts in Charlottetown on Canada’s most ambitious solar project: a 32-unit apartment building. It is heated by a Nicholson-de-

signed system and partly funded by. the governments of Prince Edward Island and Canada.

Governments are expected to be the most important clients of the fledgling solar industry over the next few years but dozens of private projects are underway across the country as small, venturous firms sprout up to meet and stimulate demand. With five employees working from an office on the Toronto waterfront, one such firm, Solartech Ltd., manufactures solar collectors to order and is now delivering solar systems to seven privately financed projects in Ontario. Solartech president David Wood took advantage of the frontier freedom of the soft energy business to jump from a career in financial management in Britain to a job advising the Canadian government on energy matters before he created his own firm. Wood, Nicholson and other advocates of solar power say the federal government is laggardly in promoting Canadian solar entrepreneurship. “If a Canadian solar industry isn’t established very quickly,” Wood warns, “the Americans are just going to flood across the border.” Crucial to a marketing leap, he explains, is the mass production of a complete “solar package” that builders can just slap into place without specialized training. Solartech plans to produce an off-the-shelf model in another year but more time will be needed to bring the price down to the $4,000 Wood sets as the key to the suburban home market.

Restraining the industry is uncertainty, not about the worth of solar power but about how the market will be divided among the big and little guys. “Will it be like the car industry with just a few makers?” wonders Wood. “Or will it go like aluminum doors and windows with a spread of small companies?” So far, Electrohome Ltd. of Kitchener, Ontario, is the only sizable Canadian firm prepared to tool up against the onslaught of General Motors and other U.S. giants whose solar development is basking in the warmth of that country’s tax credits to buyers of sun heating systems. Also inhibiting growth of Canadian solar power, especially in the cities, is the absence of a building law to protect solar system owners from construction on adjacent land of buildings that would eclipse their sun. Ontario is drafting a “right to light” law and other provinces are preparing to follow. Confidence should be reinforced as well once the Canadian Standards Association completes testing and sets reliability standards for solar collectors. Long-term durability is essential to the economics of solar energy.

The biggest impediment remains the habits of home builders and buyers who persist in defying the reality of winter with southern design tastes and construction quality. Says Quebec energy minister Guy Joron: “If we stopped building houses as though this were Hawaii, we could get a substantial share of our energy from the sun.” DAVID THOMAS