Making the SWITCH to solar energy

Local non-profit spent the past summer surveying Kingston homes for their suitability for solar panel installation

The University hopes to add to the solar panels already on campus, including those at Goodwin Hall.
The University hopes to add to the solar panels already on campus, including those at Goodwin Hall.

Solar panel energy is a rapidly exploding field in the world of energy sources, and Queen’s and Kingston are both taking a leading role.

This past summer, local non-profit organization SWITCH was dedicated to helping out with the cause.

SWITCH employees travelled around Kingston surveying homes for their suitability for solar panel installation. If homes were suitable, homeowners were informed about how to install photovoltaics (PV) or solar hot water systems. Their goal is to help 1000 Kingston homes become solar powered by 2011. According to the SWITCH website, a total of 76 installations have been made so far.

SWITCH representative Tyson Champagne said more solar power in the City will ensure a greater percentage of power used will be coming from clean energy sources.

“It will also help to position Kingston as a leading centre for sustainable energy and attract ‘green collar jobs’ to the area,” he said.

Luckily, Kingstonians don’t seem to be shying away from solar energy.

“Three quarters of the people [SWITCH] spoke with were interested in learning more about a solar installation,” he said, adding that the door-to-door campaign provided practical information on how rooftop solar panels work.

Champagne said the completion of the 1000 Solar Rooftops Challenge could have large implications for Kingston.

“It would make Kingston unique among cities of its size,” he said, adding that he hopes it would inspire other cities to follow suit.

“SWITCH Kingston has made its 1000 Solar Rooftops resources available to renewable energy organizations in other cities to help organizations in other cities to help them get started with their own challenges,” he said. “We would like to see friendly competitions to see how can install more solar panels.”

Solar panel energy is often thought of as a highly expensive venture, but SWITCH explains on their website that despite the estimated $8,000 to $15,000 installation costs, it’s a lucrative endeavour.

The SWITCH website explains that solar panels may provide you with a five per cent or higher return on assets for 20 years.

The website goes on to say that in Kingston, “1 kW of panels facing south, angled at 45 degrees makes about 1200 kWh per year of electricity.”

The Ontario government offers 80.2¢ per kilowatt hour under the microFIT program.

“This means that over the course of the 20 year contract you will actually make money from your solar panels,” Champagne said.

Associate professor of mechanical and materials engineering Joshua Pearce, who has been instrumental in the efforts to bring solar power to Queen’s, said solar energy will provide a sustainable source of energy and will generate revenue.

In October, a Request for Proposals (RFP) was issued to find a firm to design and install the panels. This followed a Request for Information (RFI) issued in August, which yielded 18 responses about the possible financial models and capable firms for PV installation.

The RFP is based on the prospective installation of PVs on 66 main and west campus buildings(which make up 75 per cent of available roof space) as well as a ground mounted system located on approximately 80 acres of Queen’s-owned land. The RFP is a good sign, but not a guarantee, that solar panels will be coming to Queen’s.

The 66 buildings at Queen’s that are suitable for solar panels are poised to yield great financial returns for the University.

“[It] depend[s] on what kind of solar cells we decide to use,” he said, adding that solar panels have low operating costs, and would allow Queen’s to reduce its dependence on traditional utilities companies.

Pearce said in addition to providing revenue for the University and helping to lower our greenhouse gas emissions, solar panel energy provides an opportunity for Queen’s to become a leader in renewable energy.

“It’s important for institutions like Queen’s to be standing tall in the front of the line in the ongoing transition from dirty, polluting, and dangerous energy sources to those that are renewable, safe, and create lots of jobs to help the economy,” he said.

Solar panel energy does have some drawbacks, namely the initial cost and the reliability on weather conditions, which tend to be fairly volatile in Kingston.

Regardless, Pearce said solar panels are the way of the future for Queen’s.

“Solar energy will make up a larger and growing significant fraction of our energy supply,” Pearce said. “I am quite confident that most of our rooftops will be covered with solar cells next year…there is enormous interest and Queen’s [will] move forward with a request for proposals any day now.”

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