This article is part of Next, The Globe's five-day series examining the people, places, things and ideas that will shape 2013.
Look on the roof of any city building in Dawson Creek, B.C., and you will see the power of the sun.
"Almost every municipal building that we now have in the city is covered in solar panels," says mayor Michael Bernier. That includes solar hot water as well as photovoltaic panels, which are used to generate electricity. "Our firehall, police station, libary, city hall, everything – they all have solar panels on them," Bernier adds. Right down to the crosswalk lights.
Plainly, Dawson Creek has made a big bet on the sun. The small city in northeast B.C., with a population of less than 12,000, is aiming to be carbon neutral heading into 2013. In 2011, it changed its building-code bylaws to require that every new house is built "solar ready" and to make it easier for homeowners to afford the infrastructure costs. To help pay for its solar initiatives, the city imposed a $100-per-tonne levy on its greenhouse gas emissions: Last year, the city emitted 3,600 tonnes, so $360,000 went in to its carbon fund, which is available to projects that reduce carbon emissions (the new downtown arts centre, Bernier says, will be outfitted with solar hot-water panels).
In June, the city's efforts were rewarded when it won the title of Canada's first solar city, an honour bestowed by the Canadian Solar Cities Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting solar technologies.
There's plenty of competiton. More than 4,000 km away, another large sun-powered project is under way, with Halifax undertaking its own solar-city project. And around the world, a combination of smart economics and concern for the enviornment is fuelling the push for solar power.
Australia, for instance, currently has seven solar cities – Adelaide, Alice Springs, Blacktown, Central Victoria, Moreland, Perth and Townsville – in different stages of development and operation. In September, Denmark reached its 2020 goal of having the capacity to generate 200 megawatts of solar power eight years early thanks to a program that allows households with solar panels to store extra energy on the public grid. And India announced it is ready to invest $84-million to fund the first of 60 solar cities, which will see solar hot water systems installed in all hopsitals, temples, hotels and other buildings, with street lights also running on solar power.
In 2008, Marburg, Germany, passed a "solar code" requiring anyone who builds or renovates a building to include solar collectors on the roof. Freiberg, also in Germany, is another proud solar city thanks to its many projects, including a photovoltaic installation to power the city's soccer stadium.
With a number of projects on the go, Canada is catching up to global solar city leaders. In July, the Ontario Power Authority launched the second version of its microFIT program, which sees homeowners and other landowners sell solar-generated power to the electricity grid. Approximately 56,000 applications have been submitted since the program was launched in 2009.
"That exceeded what we expected," says Shawn Cronkwright, director of renewables procurement at the OPA. To date, there are 14,800 microFIT projects in Ontario producing electricity on the grid. Another 6,500 projects have been approved and are in development.
As part of a new program approved by the Halifax Regional Council earlier this month, solar hot water panels will be installed on up to 1,000 city homes. Residents who participate will pay for the systems through a surcharge on their property tax bill over 10 years while saving on their hot-water costs and earning a greater sense of environmental responsibility.
The project is being funded by a $545,000 grant and a low-interest, $5.4-million loan from the Canadian Federation of Municipalities, says Richard McLellan, Halifax's manager of energy and environment. Information sessions about the program hosted by the city have been enthusiastically attended. "Normally at a municipal public information hearing, you're lucky if you get a dozen people," McLellan says. "We were packing the rooms."
Homeowners who participate will have to pay approximately $7,000 over 10 years for the equipment and its installation. It's a significant cost, but it's an investment that comes with significant returns. "I think it will save me on the order of $600 to $700 a year," says Chris Majka, a research associate at the Nova Scotia Museum who is participating in the pilot program.
People in the program will get two solar collectors, each roughly 1.2 m by 2.4 m. Inside the collectors, there is a metal plate containing tubes through which flows propylene glycol, a non-toxic antifreeze that takes the warmth of the sun and uses it to heat a water tank inside the house.
"Some people go from mid-May to mid-October 100-per-cent solar. In the dead of winter, we're still probably going to supply anywhere from 20 to 40 per cent of the energy on a monthly basis," says Peter Allen, president of Thermo Dynamics Ltd., a Dartmouth-based manufacturer of solar heating equipment that will be supplying the Halifax program.
Halifax is fertile ground for solar power , Allen says, because the city has historically been dependent on expensive coal-generated electricity and imported heating oil.
The program promises significant environmental savings. McLellan estimates the solar city effort will reduce Halifax's carbon footprint by 1,500 to 2,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually, or the equivalent emmissions of approximately 400 cars .
The Canadian Solar Cities Project gives the title of "solar city" based on 10 criteria that include having a climate-change plan in place, targets for renewable-energy use, and policies and incentives for solar electricity and solar thermal use for both commercial and residential ratepayers.
Halifax would now qualify as a solar city under the organization's criteria, and there are a handful of other municipalities, says CSCP executive director Bob Haugen. "There's growing momentum," he says. As recently as a decade ago having a solar panel on your roof would brand you as a "green hippie," Haugen says, but today "it's become very mainstream."