All types are flocking to this world-leading experimental solar community
By Jason Rodham
May 13, 2011
Imagine living in Canada’s only master-planned solar energy community. You’re picturing tie-dyed shirts, hybrid cars, organic food and a general atmosphere of modern suburban bliss out of an early Jim Carey movie, right? But other than the array of 800 solar panels on every garage, and the relatively unobtrusive Energy Management Facility on the edge of this 52-unit residential development, Drake Landing Solar Community is much like any other Canadian development. “You definitely don’t have to be a weirdo to live here,” said Robert Pew, a mechanical engineer who, with his wife and two children, was one of the very first to put down roots there.
Located in the bedroom community of Okotoks, a 30-minute drive south of downtown Calgary, Drake Landing is the first large-scale purpose-built community anywhere in the world to generate heat from solar and store it in the ground for use during the winter months. Today, that system delivers up to 80 per cent of the community’s heating requirements and removes five tonnes of greenhouse gases per home from the atmosphere every year.
Keith Paget, manager of special projects with homebuilders Sterling Homes, said that when his company began constructing Drake Landing in 2005, it expected “the Yuppie-type person” would be most attracted to its clean-energy, low-carbon approach. “In the end, we got a variety of everybody,” including the downsizing “over-50s crowd,” young families and singles.
Pew said people were drawn from as far afield as Washington State and Quebec specifically to be part of the Drake Landing approach. It is fair to say, though, that many environmentally conscious types call these 1,600-square-foot units home: visitors will spot a fair number of rain collection systems, composting bins and “zero-scaped” yards. (Zero-scaped yards, like Pew’s, have no lawn and use plants and flowers that are better suited to the region’s dry climate.)
In fact, Pew said the only downside to living in Drake Landing is that during those long, hard Alberta winters, snow can build up on the solar panels, forcing him to actually shovel his roof. He also said his garage, which is steeply angled so the solar panels can draw in as much sun as possible, casts a fairly long shadow over the backyard, causing the snow to linger a bit in the spring.
With other like-minded people in the neighbourhood, Pew said Drake Landing residents are a fairly tight-knit bunch. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few folks who are there just because they like the houses. According to Pew, there are even a few environmentally unfriendly monster trucks that can be seen prowling up and down the streets from time to time. “I can’t imagine those people are here because this is a solar-heated community.”
How it works
When you’re talking about a place that’s bitterly cold for a good chunk of the year, it’s easy to forget that Southern Alberta is actually an ideal location for generating solar energy. Okotoks, for example, is among the sunniest cities in Canada, boasting an average of 2,400 hours of sunshine annually.
An obvious major barrier to the acceptance of solar in cold climates, however, is the sun’s natural absence during the winter months. Short days, cloudy skies and snow-covered solar panels are all major obstacles to the implementation of large-scale solar projects.
To overcome this barrier, Drake Landing sought to pair the highly insulated and energy-efficient technologies in its R-2000 “Built Green” homes, which are 30 per cent more energy efficient than a conventional house, with a seasonal thermal energy system that stores solar energy underground during the summer months and distributes it for space heating during the winter.
Doug McClenahan, project leader with Natural Resources Canada’s CanmetENERGY division and the driving force behind Drake Landing, said there are three main “loops” to the project: a solar collection loop, a district heating loop and a storage loop.
The process begins with an array of 800 single-glazed flat-plate solar panels organized into four rows and mounted on the detached garages of each home. This solar array can generate as much as 1.5 megawatts of thermal power during a typical summer day.
An antifreeze fluid—simply a mixture of water and non-toxic glycol—is pumped through these solar collectors and heated whenever the sun is out. This heated glycol mixture is then carried off the garage through a shallow trench system to the community’s Energy Centre.
The Energy Centre is the heart of the district’s heating system. Located in the corner of the community, it houses two 120-square-metre short-term heat storage tanks, a backup gas boiler and mechanical equipment such as pumps, heat exchangers and controls.
In the district heating loop, heated water is circulated from the Energy Centre to each home through an insulated, underground network of pipes. At each home, this heated water passes through an air handler in the basement. Heat is then distributed through forced air ducts, removing the need for a conventional furnace.
The storage loop features a unique underground Borehole Thermal Energy Storage system, which can collect and store large quantities of solar heat to a depth of 35 metres. This heat, which can reach an ambient temperature of 80° Celsius by the end of summer, is then transferred to the surrounding soil and rock. As McClenahan characterizes it, the system is, “really just heating up the soil” and recovering it later.
Though he notes that the temperature 35 metres down is “pretty stable” throughout the year, McClenahan said up to 65 per cent of the heat generated by the system is lost. “We know we’re going to lose the majority of the heat we stick in there.”
To meet hot water demands, every home is equipped with two self-regulated solar panels on the roof connected to a solar hot water tank in the basement. Up to 60 per cent of each home’s domestic hot water requirements can be met in this fashion. When solar energy is not available, hot water demand is supplemented by a backup natural gas hot water heater.
What about cost?
Natural Resources Canada stumped up $3.3 million to design, build and monitor Drake Landing. This represents an upfront subsidy of approximately $63,421 per home.
Homeowners pay $60 a month to maintain and operate the system. Somewhat ironically, McClenahan points out neighbours in the housing development across the way are actually paying less per month to heat their homes using natural gas.
McClenahan said annual maintenance of the system typically adds up to someone going in “every now and again” to make sure all the equipment in the community’s Energy Centre is functioning correctly. The annual cost for this maintenance is between $10,000 and $11,000.
To date there have been some unanticipated costs associated with maintaining the system, including the repair of a leak in a solar panel, “which was not a minor thing.” They also had to carry out a major retrofit to the piping in the storage tanks. But even with these additional costs, he said the project has so far “operated pretty close to expectations.”
Home builder Keith Paget said that, although the homes in Drake Landing retailed for the same amount as comparable homes, they are now reselling for as much as $25,000 above market rate.
While Drake Landing resident Robert Pew was happy to have the government foot the bill for a few extra “bells and whistles” in his home, he said there are far wider implications—and responsibilities—that governments must bear if they ever want to realize the Holy Grail of a low-carbon, clean energy society.
“I pay taxes and I expect to see our society realize the benefits of those taxes,” he said. “If we put a price on carbon then I see a real shift occurring. The technology to do it is here now.”
“We do see [Drake Landing] as an example of the solar community of the future,” said Natural Resources’ McClenahan. He said the project’s primary importance is that it has demonstrated once and for all that, even in a very cold climate, “you can provide almost 100 per cent of your heating from a local, renewable energy source.”
With this quite notable success, Natural Resources and its partners in Drake Landing are planning to take the project to its next logical step. McClenahan is currently developing a feasibility study for the development of a 1,000-unit community, due to be finalized by March 2012. “What we’re looking at is a model in the future where the utility can bear close to the full cost of the system and recover their costs through the monthly fee,” he said. You can’t do that now for Drake Landing, but it might be possible for a larger development.”
McClenahan said that, by expanding the scale of the technology, they should be able to generate a kilowatt hour of energy for less than 10 cents, which is still higher than the cost of natural gas. “But will it be higher in the future?”
Paget of Sterling Homes said any new projects in solar collection and storage will need a major Canadian utility company like ATCO Gas, which was a partner in Drake Landing, to “step up to the plate” and take it on. “We’ve proved it can be done. Now we just have to prove it makes economic sense.”
Photo of the Pew family: Dana Pugh