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People of the sun united in Colwood
Judith Cullington hands over a tablet. The Colwood city councillor’s electronic device displays flashing numbers: - 621, - 619, - 622.
The numbers continue to flicker on and off when she disappears out a doorway and a low rumble churns through the air. The numbers change, reading in the 4,000’s until the mysterious rumbling stops and the number flickers at - 621 once more.
“I just turned on my dryer,” Cullington said, smiling. The numbers represented her home’s energy consumption in watts, starting off at a negative because solar panels on her roof produced energy in excess of what the home was using and automatically supplementing what she needed when the dryer kicked in. That, she said, is the magic of the upgrades she has installed in her home through Solar Colwood.
“It is actually cheaper,” she said. “You are paying up front, but benefiting all the way down the back end. If you’re going to stay in your house for any reasonable length of time, why wouldn’t you do it?”
Since the program was introduced in Colwood June of 2011, Cullington has installed solar photovoltaic grids, or solar panels, on her roof that allow her to charge her electric vehicle, a solar hot water system for her water tank and a ductless split heat pump. Despite spending thousands of dollars on purchases and installation – even after Solar Colwood grants were applied – she said it is an investment she is more than happy to make.
“The payback for the electric car will be four to five years,” she said, explaining that the savings would make it equivalent to buying a similar sized gas-powered car.
“Those panels actually produce more energy than my car uses in a year, so I say I am running my car on sunshine.”
She called her solar panels her “Alberta oil field on my roof” and estimates that it costs her $15 a month to charge her car, a Nissan Leaf, forgoing gasoline completely. Once the gas savings pay for the price of the car, the rest is money in her pocket. The cost for her solar water retrofit would likely be a longer-term investment she said, closer to 10 to 15 years. With a lifetime expectancy pushing 25 years or more, the saving would eventually be there but Cullington believes money isn’t only factor.
“If you put in nice granite countertops (in your home) what is the payback on those? The answer is there isn’t one… You do it because you want to do it.”
Solar Colwood spokesperson Glenys Verhulst admitted that for some homeowners, the up-front cost of the larger retrofit installations can be prohibitive.
There are varying applications for almost any household, from kits with free bathroom and kitchen aerators that don’t require tools to install, to loan programs through Vancity to help make the program more accessible now.
“Having expensive electricity or gas bills is not affordable either. This way you get energy independence over the long run and sunshine is always free,” Verhulst said, “unlike what happens with electricity and other forms of energy, which you will always purchase from somebody else.”
The program, funded through a $3.9-million federal grant established January of 2011, pays for the individual grants as well as the staffing cost for all the contractors, including Verhulst. Colwood staff time has been estimated at approximately $1.50 per household per year, a cheap price to pay to have the opportunity, she said. It is especially so in light of $1,000 a year savings for the Colwood Fire Department main hall related to a retrofit, and the electric car added to the city’s fleet.
Royal Roads University director of sustainability Nancy Wilkin led a study on the program with several of her masters students. They monitored 13 homes, roughly a third of those retrofitted through Solar Colwood. The ongoing study looks at B.C. Hydro bills from before, during and after the upgrades and Wilkin said the results speak for themselves.
“They have saved 44 per cent. They are directly saving money and you translate that to greenhouse gas emissions it is a 45 per cent reduction,” she said.
“For the little town of Colwood, those are astounding percentages.”
The lowest decrease in a bill was 25 per cent, the highest being 68 per cent. Efficiency of the households ranged, depending on numerous factors including the age of the house and amount of insulation already in the house alongside the homes size and layout.
So far Solar Colwood has helped consumers take more than 1,500 energy-saving actions with approximately 400 free energy-saving kits, 100 ductless heat pumps and 40 solar hot water systems, the last figure second highest in Canada next to the Sooke First Nation.
The program ends March 31, 2015, when all federal money for grants is pulled and any retrofitting goes up to full price. Royal Roads will release its study to the public in its entirety upon completion of the program.
“There are lots of other important things to do as well, but making our community a leader is an important thing to do,” Cullington said.
“Addressing climate change is important, helping our residents lower their energy bills is important. What we find is a lot of people want to do this because it feels like the right thing to do. It is not necessarily just about the money.”
For more information visit solarcolwood.ca
Heat pumps a hot ticket
The $500 Solar Colwood grants for installing ductless heat pumps can be added to by applying to the HERO program administered by B.C. Hydro and Fortis. An additional $800 grant makes the total discount $1,300.
The heat pump grants are the most popular item in Solar Colwood's program, aside from the free energy-saving kits, but there are only 11 left available. Visit solarcolwood.ca for more details.