Adopting renewable energy can start with small steps

As a renewable energy specialist, I often hear the comment, “I’d like to do something with renewable energy. I just don’t know what makes the most sense.”

The first answer must be: “If you want to make the most economical sense, work to conserve energy rather than creating it.”

That means doing things as simple as turning off lights and the power to televisions, computers and other appliances that are not used.

Driving smart by leaving earlier, driving slower and planning ahead to make fewer trips is also a dramatic contribution.

Simple conservation efforts around the house such as weather stripping, low-volume flush toilets and energy efficient appliances all cut down on energy accand esresource s=s consumption. bscriber section=However, crops, that none, is not none the response that some people want to hear. They want to do something that they and others can see: something visible, something tangible.

So for those of you who are ready to tackle renewable energy technology, consider three factors: location, timing and preference.

Location is important because the availability of natural gas, which is the most common energy source, varies from region to region, as does the availability of renewable resources. Cheap natural gas is taken for granted in many parts of the country, but in other places its availability is limited.

More expensive heating oil serves as the common energy source in many communities. Pricier propane is used by those who are off the grid. Electricity prices vary across Canada depending on the source, be it hydroelectric, coal or nuclear.

The cheapest power is available in Quebec, Manitoba, and British Columbia because of abundant hydro-electricity.

Timing relates to the availability of incentives, such as grants, rebates, tax credits, capital cost allowances and feed-in tariffs.

Most programs have time limits. Deadlines for the federal government’s energy efficiency and solar thermal grants have been extended until March 31. Saskatchewan’s grid-tied power system rebates also end March 31.

Some programs, such as Ontario’s feed-in tariff for power systems, are likely to be less lucrative as more people subscribe.

Preference is important because you want to like what you are doing and be able to live with any challenges that might arise in operation.

The question most often asked is, “what is the payback?”

The environmental answer is that you are contributing to a reduction in greenhouse gases that benefits everyone, but in economic terms, payback refers to the period of time over which the savings are equal to the capital cost.

The quickest payback comes from seasonal pool heating, which makes use of the longer summer solar hours. The savings can be dramatic if you are heating with gas or electricity, and the payback is measured in a few short years followed by years of free heating.

You can start with something basic that every household uses: hot water. A solar thermal system that costs $5,000 to $7,000 can offset as much as 50 percent of the annual water heating requirements for a residence of four.

The payback of a solar hot water system depends on the cost of your conventional energy source, your hot water use and your location.

The payback will be quicker if your conventional energy source is oil, propane or electricity, likely less than 10 years. The payback is longer If you heat with natural gas.

Use is another factor. Seniors with lower hot water use will have a much longer payback than a family with children. As well, insolation, which is the sun reaching the ground, differs from area to area. Rainier areas have less insulation because of the greater cloud cover, so areas with lower insolation have longer payback times. Payback is obviously shorter if grants are available.

Let’s say you want to harness the wind. Again, location is all-important. Terrain and buildings have a major impact on wind, so urban locations are generally low production areas.

However, if you are out in the middle of nowhere with nothing around but grass and a great horizon, chances are you have a good wind resource.

To get a better idea, check out It maps the wind resource available across the country. When reading the map, remember that small increases in wind speed result in large increases in power production, so an area with an average wind speed of five metres per second will produce almost double the power production of an area with four metres per second wind speed.

Many manufacturers include a chart on their websites that allows you to enter your wind speed and calculate the expected power production. However, standardized wind turbine testing is in its infancy, so make sure the turbine you are considering has been independently tested, and look at the figures critically.

Maybe you have a stream that has a respectable drop while crossing your property. This suggests a micro-hydro power installation. Its output will depend on the volume and the amount of drop.

You will have to jump through hoops because waterways are under federal and provincial authority, but hydro power is the most constant, reliable and inexpensive renewable power source. Most jurisdictions have at least a net-metering program that allows you to offset grid-power consumption with on-site production.

The most popular concept is to produce power with photovoltaic panels, whether it is just a cabin in the woods or a full-blown system covering the roof of your largest building.

PV is reliable and virtually maintenance-free, particularly in the case of grid-tied solar that doesn’t use batteries. it is still a long-term investment in most jurisdictions but is still a better investment than most stock equity funds these days.

Saskatchewan has a 35 percent capital cost grant, and Ontario’s FIT program pays as much as 80 cents per kilowatt hour for grid-connected renewable energy. These systems can pay for themselves with a long-term contract.

Will Oddie is a renewable energy, sustainable building consultant with a lifetime interest in energy conservation. To contact Oddie, send e-mail to

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