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Cut costs by harnessing outdoor heat with a solar wall Add to ...

Think of the biggest energy cost for a typical Canadian business – one running multiple computers and keeping the lights on at all hours. It’s electricity, right? Wrong.

“People think of electricity first but actually, in Canada, indoor heating is the largest use of energy,” says Victoria Hollick, vice-president of renewable energy firm Conserval Engineering in Toronto. “Given that [we use] heat seven months of the year, that represents a tremendous use of energy.”

Reducing energy consumption is a goal for every Canadian business, both large and small, because of the obvious financial advantages and a desire to demonstrate an eco-friendly business ethic in an increasingly green world.

Conserval has been working to address this concern since 1977, when it was launched with a focus on providing energy retrofits for large industrial buildings.

In the 1990s, Conserval introduced its proprietary technology, called SolarWall. “We created this entire technology genre,” says Ms. Hollick. “Solar air heating would not exist if it weren’t for us.”

Their system uses solar radiation to heat the boundary layer on the surface of a metal wall. The heated air is then drawn through tiny perforations into an air cavity, where it is moved through ducting into the building’s heating and ventilation system.

Preheating ventilation air in this way saves businesses between 20 and 50 per cent on their heating costs.

Today, thousands of SolarWall systems, which are manufactured in Ontario, are installed in 30 countries around the world. Clients include the Canadian and U.S. governments, Toyota, FedEx Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Owens Corning, 3M Co., Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and more than 2,000 others in the industrial, agricultural, commercial and institutional sectors.

The company’s solar air heating installations have replaced the equivalent of 44 megawatts of thermal energy in thermal systems, which helps prevent the emission of 17,000 tonnes of CO2 a year in Ontario alone.

SolarWall has made big strides, but nearly two decades after debuting it, Conserval still struggles with the commercialization of a technology that hasn’t gone mainstream.

“One of our biggest challenges is that we are a company and an industry all-in-one, because we created the whole concept,” says Ms. Hollick. “We still have to educate people in terms of what solar air heating is.”

But an even bigger challenge is the cancellation of two government incentive programs that helped get SolarWall into the Canadian renewables market – particularly in Ontario. First was the federal ecoENERGY Renewable Heat Program, which ran from 1998 until the end of 2010. It provided a 15 to 25 per cent capital incentive to organizations that invested in the technology.

In 2007, Ontario introduced the Solar Thermal Heating Incentive, a $14-million program spread over four years that matched that federal incentive.

“So the Ontario market just took off. And Ontario became the solar thermal capital in Canada,” says Ms. Hollick.

The end of these programs in 2010 “hijacked domestic growth in Ontario and across Canada,” she says. In fact, it has shifted the company's business from about 60 per cent Canadian clients and 40 per cent international clients to 40 per cent Canadian and 60 per cent international.

“Many companies considering different technologies may only consider ones where there are incentives in place,” says Ms. Hollick, adding that there is a disproportionate focus on electricity incentives, despite the fact that the heating technologies require only a small fraction of the support required for solar electric systems.

She favours a long-term strategy that is open to all technologies and focuses on building codes, rather than incentives, similar to the environmental program in the U.K.

“In order for large commercial or industrial buildings to get a permit, they have to demonstrate that 10 per cent of their energy comes from renewable resources,” she says. “People get to choose what’s the best technology for them, and it’s not actually an incentive on the part of government.”

It’s not just the cutback to financial support that poses a problem to Conserval. Ms. Hollick also sees the incentives as a sort of stamp of approval. “It gives credibility, which is essential,” she says. “It’s still perceived as a new field but having government support and programs in place creates a comfort level.”

The Swish group of companies, which manufactures, distributes and sells cleaning supplies, are one of Conserval’s Ontario clients.

“Our fastest growing line is our certified green products, and after going through an energy audit, we decided to make our facilities green too,” says Katherine Jordan, Swish’s manager of sustainable development.

Swish has seen a 14 per cent reduction in energy costs, and expects to see that number go up to around 20 per cent as they optimize their system.

Ms. Jordan says that Swish went with SolarWall because it directly reduces the company’s carbon footprint by using less energy to heat their facility, although Ontario’s two incentive programs were also critical to the decision.

The incentives are important to other potential buyers too, it seems. Conserval has seen “projects decline substantially” in Canada following the discontinuation of the incentive programs, says Ms. Hollick.

The company is optimistic that the government will revisit the incentive programs to help Canadians embrace renewable energy and to keep Canada in step with the rest of the world, says Ms. Hollick. “Or we risk falling behind as a country.”

Ms. Jordan echoes her sentiment: “I’m very disappointed and hope that at both levels of government, the decision will be made to resurrect those programs. They’re very critical.”

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