Toronto has a gas problem -- natural gas that is. We use it for space and water heating and it is the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in our city (after transportation). Thousands of gas-fired water heaters and furnaces release thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide and smog pollution, pretty much at nose level.
If we want a cleaner, greener city, we need to take a cleaner, greener bath or shower. One solution is solar water heating. On warm spring and summer days, the sun will provide all the hot water you need – zero emissions. In the winter, a solar water heater can still give freezing city water a big temperature boost before it hits your conventional water heater, so you use much less gas or electricity. Over a year, a solar water heating system can halve the average Toronto home’s gas or electricity use for producing hot water.
The technology is pretty simple and it technically works: millions of solar water heaters are in use around the world. It would work practically if solar hot water were made a priority. Unfortunately, the federal government cancelled the ecoENERGY incentives (the provincial incentive is still available for now) and with currently low electricity and gas prices (which don’t take into account the real costs of generation or pollution costs), purchasers of solar water heaters now face a long payback on their investment for doing the right thing.
Compare that to the situation for solar hot water’s cousin: solar electricity generation, also known as solar PV. Recognizing the need to get rid of dirty coal power and reduce emissions, the provincial government has established a farsighted program to pay a premium for zero emission solar generated electricity. Called a “feed-in tariff”, these special rates are jumpstarting the creation of a new solar industry in Ontario and driving the cost of components down as demand heats up.
The same approach is needed for solar hot water. Because solar hot water panels actually produce more energy per area, a feed-in tariff rate of less than half of what is currently being paid for solar PV reduce solar water system payback to 10 years, a reasonable investment time frame.
The Solar Neighbourhoods pilot in east-end Toronto -- now the largest community-based solar water heating project in Canada with 100 panels on residential roofs -- proved that installing a solar water heating works for Toronto homeowners; see www.solarneighbourhoods.ca In Germany, Japan and China, the value of using the free energy of the sun to heat their home’s hot water is accepted and the technology is rapidly being adopted.
It’s time we stop questioning investments in clean, renewable energy and instead get moving to deploy a proven emissions reduction technology that can help us meet our emission reduction obligations – and create a healthier city.