SolarÂ’s future looking brighter

OAKVILLE, ONTARIO - A new rooftop solar-energy system installed recently in Beijing Olympic Village didn't come from some hot new Silicon Valley start-up, or an established player in Germany's world-leading solar industry.

It came from the Toronto area, baby!

The system is a hybrid design that can generate both heat and electricity for the building, which will be a service centre for athletes during the summer games. It's one of the first commercial systems of its kind, manufactured in Oakville, and is a testament to the role Ontario companies can play in the emerging market for solar products.

"In terms of the projects we've done, when we compare our systems to other systems on the market it's very attractive," says John Hollick, president of Conserval Engineering, which has been making a solar heating product — currently called SolarWall — for nearly three decades. More recently, the company has added power-producing solar photovoltaic panels to the system so customers can get both heat and electricity.

It makes a whole lot of sense, says Hollick. On their own, solar PV panels absorb a lot of heat from the sun that ends up being wasted. SolarWall, when placed underneath the PV panels, absorbs heat from the panel and distributes it through building ventilation. If you don't need the heat, such as in the summer, it can also be used to heat water.

A solar PV panel, depending on the type of cells that are used, is 6 per cent to 20 per cent efficient at converting sunlight into electricity. Add SolarWall underneath and energy conversion efficiency climbs closer to 50 per cent, says Hollick. The SolarWall product also acts as a rack system that would normally be required anyway with a PV installation. This leads to further cost savings.

Hollick says the company is having a difficult time keeping up with demand, a nice place to be after toiling away in relative obscurity. When asked if he'll be coming out with a residential product, "Our people have just been too busy on the commercial and industrial side," he says, adding that he'll turn his attention to it early next year.

Solar technologies, until recently, have always been a work in progress in Ontario, in Canada — happening in a university lab somewhere, or part of a dream by a few small companies that always seemed to be years away from commercialization and struggling to pay their bills. I call them "forever emerging" ventures.

But times are changing. Hollick points out new green building standards have architects and builders rushing to try out new solar products. Consumer interest is growing, and government incentives and financing programs are turning window shoppers into buyers. Export opportunities are huge, and the move to accommodate renewables such as solar on the electricity grid is gathering momentum, albeit slowly.

In less than two years Scott Nichol, founder of solar-grade silicon producer 6N Silicon, has taken his company from his basement to a $50-million production plant being constructed in Vaughan. Last week the Ontario government contributed $8 million to the plant, which will create 84 new jobs.

In May, Ottawa-based Menova Engineering began manufacturing a system that combines solar power, heating and lighting in a single product. Wal-Mart plans to test the system atop one of its stores. Menova's system is being manufactured in Markham at Woodbine Tool & Die, giving workers hit by the automotive downturn a chance to keep their jobs.

Meanwhile, solar PV maker Arise Technologies is building a solar silicon pilot plant near its headquarters in Waterloo, with construction planned for the fall. The aim, by 2010, is to expand it to a full commercial plant.

Shovels are hitting the ground. People are getting hired. Product is being made, sold and deployed. And it's happening in Ontario.

"I think Ontario has a golden opportunity here to create a solar industry, and create more high-tech type jobs," says Hollick. "Not just in manufacturing, but in the design, installation, and marketing. There are a lot of good paying jobs that could be created in this industry."

Still, as much as it's encouraging to see a few points of light, there's nothing to brag about — yet. Given enough support, hundreds of points of light could emerge from this province, creating a bright future for an industry just itching to prove itself at home and abroad.

It depends, I suppose, on how much we want it.


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