Tipping the Towers of Power

March 16, 2001

By Michael Jessen

Fed up with the bad news bills -- those big buck tabs that account for your use of electricity, natural gas, propane, or oil?

While some source of energy is needed to make our lives go around, four energy experts say it's time to explore the potential of conservation, solar, mini-hydro, and wind. Last Sunday, they told a small Nelson audience their suggestions are a sure-fire way to settle the score with your utility company.

Leading a panel discussion at the second annual Festival of Ideas, West Kootenay Power's energy efficiency engineer Keith Veerman told of the cost savings that can be gained from ground-or air-source heat pumps, compact fluorescent light bulbs, and energy efficient appliances. His company's PowerSense program has already generated 153 gigawatt hours of energy savings -- the base electrical load of 5,200 homes.

That sounded impressive until Gillian Browning said she built a 3,600-square foot home that isn't connected to the electrical grid at all. Browning's home is 100% solar-powered and it's just a few miles outside Nelson.

The electricity for Browning's house is generated by photovoltaic cells and powers her refrigerator as well as her home office computer, printer, and fax machine.

"It takes very little to heat the house," she said. "Maybe one cord of wood per year."

The trick, said Browning, is to face the house toward the south to take advantage of the sun, construct the north side partially underground to reduce impact of winter winds, install lots of insulation, and have few windows on the west side to eliminate late-afternoon heating. She said her house has a soapstone "trombe" wall that absorbs heat during the day and releases it at night.

While admitting it is hard to retrofit an existing house, Browning said the extra 10 to 20% in capital costs for new home construction are quickly gained back in the form of reduced electrical and heating bills.

Although large hydroelectric dams are the source of almost all BC's electrical energy, there is untapped potential for mini-hydro, said a Kaslo electrical engineer. Don Scarlett said the West Kootenay area is well endowed with steep mountains and many creeks that make ideal sites for small hydro installations. He said there are probably 50 mini-hydro plants within a 50-mile radius of Nelson.

Wind power is the world's fastest-growing energy source, despite the fact no wind source is yet connected to the grid in BC, said Andrew Pape, who is co-director of the eco-efficient technologies program at Alberta's Pembina Institute for Appropriate Development.

Pape said large-scale wind farms are cost competitive with other energy sources and provide significant environmental benefits. He said the large state of California now generates 1% of its electricity from wind while the tiny country of Denmark gets 20% of its energy from wind.

"In fact, wind technology is now Denmark's number one export," he added.

Pincher Creek, Alberta is one Canadian wind farm location and new projects are planned there. Gaspe, Quebec has a 100-megawatt wind farm. That could supply all of the electrical needs in Nelson, Castlegar, and Trail.

Pape held out hope for wind in BC, saying one of the highest provincial wind speeds (eight metres per second) has been recorded on Old Glory Mountain near Rossland.

If saving money isn't enough to convince you of the power of conservation and alternate forms of energy, try these numbers on for size. According to Pape here's a comparison of the number of jobs created per $1million of expenditure on energy sources: one to three jobs for large hydro, four for natural gas, six for oil, eight for wind, and 37 for energy efficiency.

GREEN STEPS - Compared to regular light bulbs, compact fluorescents save you up to $25 in energy costs, last ten times longer (up to five years) and provide the same amount of light but use only 1/4 the power. Need more incentives to switch? Ninety percent of the total electricity used by a standard incandescent lightbulb is wasted as heat. Replacing one incandescent lightbulb with a compact fluorescent bulb will reduce by 1,000 pounds the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere over the bulb's lifetime. Air source heat pumps use 40% less energy than standard heating and air conditioning systems. You'll save approximately $500 each year, depending on what type of electric heating or air conditioning system you have. A ground source heat pump will save you 60% or more on your heating bill if you are using electric heat. If you can't live without your gas fireplace (they're only 35 to 70 percent efficient) at least get one with a spark ignition to avoid a gas-gobbling pilot light. Gas water heaters are only 55% efficient compared to 90% for an electric one. A new energy efficient refrigerator can save you up to $80 a year depending on the age of your old one. Explore energy-efficient technologies before you build your new home.

RESOURCES - West Kootenay Power's PowerSense program has a toll-free line at 1-800-363-3330. Visit their web site at www.wkpower.com/powersense/ for a wealth of money saving information. Gillian Browning's company is called Sunfire Energy. You can reach her by phone at (250) 352-9922 or e-mail at sunfire@netidea.com. Contact Scarlett's Electric at (250) 353-2563 or scarlett@netidea.com. Andrew Pape also has a company called Sustainergy Consulting. Contact him at (250) 703-6000 or sustainergy@island.net.

Michael Jessen is the owner of toenail environmental services, a consulting business that helps companies and communities profit from environmental leadership. He can be reached at 250-229-5632 or by e-mail at toenail@netidea.com. His firm's award-winning web site is at www.toenail.org/.

All columns archived here are copyright © 2000 by Michael Jessen, all rights reserved. If you wish to print an individual column for your own use, please do so. If you wish to publish any of the columns in either print or electronic format, please contact the author at toenail@netidea.com to arrange appropriate payment.