In The Beginning…. (4 minute read)

2003. The ‘Strawberry Hill’ fire is raging just on the edge of Kamloops BC. The air was so hot it felt like it was searing my lungs while I worked outside in the heat and smoke. I was working feverishly to get renovation waste wood out of my yard, in case the fire spread to town. And I was thinking and planning. I was planning on studying and training to promote and be involved in building as much grid-tied renewable energy possible. I was frustrated by the lack of local and national action on climate change. I was also tired of being sensitive to all the toxins and crap in my conventional home and realizing it would be very difficult to rebuild it ‘clean’.

Women designers and builders

In the back of my mind I had always thought I might one day build a log home or cabin, like the log home my father built that I grew up in and like another solo woman before me, Chris Czajkowski had built in the Chilcotin wilderness of BC. Her independence and strength in building her own remote log home by hand in the wilderness had been inspiring me since my youth when I read an article in a magazine about her work.

But logs burn. Locally, the symptoms of climate change were erupting rapidly. The Ponderosa pine trees that were a significant part of our local landscape were dying in large numbers, attacked by beetles that were no longer restricted by cold winters. The fires and the changes in the forest and grassland ecosystem that I loved so much was driving me to do more. This fire made me remember the straw bale homes I’d also read about over the years. Perhaps, I thought, they would be more fire resilient due to their plastered surfaces?

Fast forward a year. I am studying renewable energy and sustainable building in Colorado and I learned even more reasons to build with straw and clay: in addition to fire resiliency and being toxin free, I learned more about total embodied energy and carbon footprint; the values of reduced use of cement and building for longevity so that the high energy cost of construction is spread over as many years as possible. We sequester the carbon of the wood and straw in the building as well, another plus.

Ideally, building one less new building at all would be best for the planet. For me, my health concerns and desire to be farming, were driving a plan that I could justify my creation of the home of my dreams on a larger piece of land than my small city lot. A low-embodied energy, clean and fire resilient, truly sustainable home. You don’t need plastics, synthetic materials and expensive materials to build a healthy, cosy home. In addition, it turns out, a natural home, does not have to be a rough, simple hut as many people imagine, they can be quite luxurious and beautiful. The downside: A lot of labour.

I grew up on a farm and have always been physically strong, familiar with hard physical work and good with handling tools, with experience in construction, engineering and landscape construction, as well as having learned some basic building science from my older architect brother. I thought I could do it. If Chris could do what she did far in the wilderness, I could do this near a major city like Kamloops.

Natural Builders

In my studies looking for what sustainable systems really worked, I also had learned of and later had the privilege to meet some of the strong, industrious women and men working in natural building and natural plasters, like Athena Swentzell-Steen, Bill Steen, Craig Hillman, Sukita Crimmel and Tracy Theriot. I visited many straw bale homes while traveling to study renewables and natural building in both Colorado and BC and worked on several as well.

Living Buildings

The Living Building Challenge (LBC) had recently begun its program to encourage truly sustainable building; they had established a system that was the highest certification system in the world to guide more sustainable construction. I pored over the requirements and studied the materials Redlist. I visited the Eco-sense home, the first LBC-certified residential home and conveniently a few hours from me on Vancouver Island. I was duly impressed by the innovative seismic design of their home done by engineer Tim Krahn, which supplied a crucial missing link for me as I discovered I needed a structural engineer with natural materials experience. Turns out, most engineers have no idea how these materials work.

In my work as an Energy Advisor, I had heard stories of some straw bale and alternative built homes that were built poorly, with problems like mould and excessive air leakage. I wanted to ensure I didn’t make any mistakes, as that leads to slower adoption of alternatives, giving building professionals a poor impression of these homes. I wanted to create a healthy and sound home that building inspectors would be happy with, to aid in the understanding and acceptance of these materials.

My property search took a couple of years. I was looking for arable land, good water and a site with a quite wide-open solar resource. If one is installing solar electricity, you need a ‘good’ solar resource, with at least several hours of sun per day for at least a good part of the year (depending on your needs or investment requirement). For using solar for heat as I was planning, ideally I needed the most solar I could get: the most hours for as much of the year as I could find. Oh, and it needed to be reasonably near to town (ideally reasonable cycling distance), have roads maintenance – and be very affordable (alot of asks!).

Once I had a property, I got to work on many hours of research on materials and the search for suppliers and contractors who either were familiar with what I needed or at least were willing to learn and work with them (not as easy as you might think). I began my basic design and started sourcing materials and contractors.…

One of the most essential things about sustainable and natural building is to ensure that the overall design from the very beginning, is based on its sustainability. Many problems in buildings happen when green items are simply added to a conventional design. Many of these materials behave differently than standard materials, so many of the systems used to create both sustainable and natural buildings may not follow convention. The building needs to function as a system with all its parts integrated according to their properties and functions.

More about living buildings, sustainable and natural building materials and design soon.~

Your PV installation – Some Considerations (8 min read)

Image: Wendy McLean

We are in a transitional time. Sometimes issues are addressed only belatedly as a governing body encounters them. When I took my first solar course, we were told a story. Apparently, when incentive programs for solar PV first began in sunny California, they were paid according to Watts installed. After a time, it was realized that this lead to a significant number of installations that didn’t actually produce very much power, with PV even being placed on north-facing walls. The state wasn’t getting very much for it’s investment! The program was later changed so that the incentive was paid according to energy actually produced (Watt-hours). California now also has regulations governing acceptable site assessment tools to ensure solar access (avoiding shading).

Technical Safety BC provides regulatory safety for solar PV installations in BC via the electrical permit system and its licensing of electricians. Permits and licensing are there for several reasons. Safety – to prevent electrocution injuries and fires; damage to equipment and to ensure that your installation is safe for the next home or building owner. If as a customer, you want to add any new equipment, solar or otherwise, expect that some updating of your old system or equipment may be required before you can invest in your additional new equipment. An electrician will make up some part of your installation team, even if your PV supplier is not one. Be prepared and plan for this when planning spending.

What about cheaper solar equipment on line?

The equipment or system looking cheaper online may not contain all the required parts to make it work or meet local code or its parts may not all be compatible and work properly. Please do not think you can order your panels online cheaper than your local installer. Or, rather – you can, but who is going to ensure the whole thing works? You may even find a contractor willing to install the stuff you order – but they are not going to work for free when it doesn’t install as expected, needs parts, needs troubleshooting or doesn’t pass inspection. In the end, this route might not be more affordable.

Please look for a responsible and reputable installer and pay them for the equipment they know and trust. Your installer will (ideally) have taken time and money to learn how to install solar equipment properly. Taking time from work to learn best practice and pay for tuition costs them money. Support the local installer that is doing quality work; invest in your community. Having said that, if you need to look further afield to find an installer that is able to answer all your questions and provide the best service, that can be more affordable than going with one who has not taken the time to learn best practice. You are not looking for the installer that tells you what you want to hear, but the one that tells you the truth.

Should I wait for newer, better PV before I invest?

There’s no need to wait. Tech is always changing and improving, but the essential PV panels and equipment is well established and won’t likely change too much in the very near future.

What about maintenance?

Most maintenance and renovation work in renewable energy systems is prevented altogether with accurate and thoughtful design in the first place. The correct use of solar siting tools during site assessment will avoid current (and hopefully future) shading from vegetation growth or power lines and other objects. The use of established, reputable, quality equipment will reduce (although not necessarily avoid) equipment issues. If you have chosen both a reliable installer and reliable equipment, issues should be resolved fairly rapidly. If they cannot be resolved with the installer, talk to the manufacturer. As a last resort, which unfortunately does happen, you may need to find another installer to remedy your situation. This, unfortunately happens in all industries. The prevention is doing your homework and choosing wisely.

Off-grid, ground mount designs need to plan for snowpack and animal and human access (access is now covered by the BC electrical code). Panel maintenance will include an occasional gentle hosing off of dust or brushing off of snow that will improve production.

Problems with solar can develop. Cracking of lenses, loose electrical connections or loose panels and growth of nearby vegetation causing shading can occur. Modern electronic solar equipment like optimizers, mini-inverters and larger inverters perform system management that was barely conceivable only a few years ago. They are quite amazing and most of the time work extremely well, but failures do happen, even in quality brands; quality means it is less likely and will be easily sorted out when it happens.

Both grid-tied and off-grid owners should be aware of your actual, normal and estimated monthly production and be on alert for any unexplained inconsistencies, which can be investigated. Other than that, a visual inspection done semi-annually of all parts to correct any detected issues (like loose connections or panels) should keep your system in good repair and running trouble-free. For off-grid folks with pole arrays, your semi-annual visual inspection can be when you go out and change your array angle for summer and winter.

Battery types and brands vary in maintenance requirements, so follow your installer’s and manufacturer’s instructions and ensure that your equipment is charging at the expected frequency and getting the expected results and/or have that included in a maintenance contract.

About Mechanical Trackers

Trackers were used for off-grid pole mount installations in the old days before LED lighting and high-wattage PV panels, when life off-grid was pretty limited, electrically-speaking. They allowed the PV array to change its angle to the sun (making it more direct or closer to perpendicular) in one or two planes (single and dual axis) to physically track the sun over the course of the day to maximize production. Today they are often used in grid-tied installations in some jurisdictions as they can be quite cost-effective, if the price being paid by the utility for your production is high enough. Currently, in BC, our main utilities do not pay high prices for small power producers. BC Hydro is currently paying approximately 10 cents per kWhr.

For either off-grid or grid-tied installations, a cost benefit comparison should be made to evaluate if a tracker is a reasonable investment. The production value of the tracker must be compared to the total cost of the tracker: its installation, plus maintenance costs and lost income during its downtimes, which will most definitely happen. Crunch the numbers if you are considering this, but I have yet to see one for a small producer (grid-tied or off-grid) in BC that is justified. In most circumstances, if you want more production and have the space and solar access, it is more economically effective to simply add more panels.

About Racking

Ground Mounts

Now, you know from my website here that I am all about appropriate materials and decreasing cement and metals use. But there are places for these materials and your power production racking is one of them. In most cases, over the lifetime of the installation, using these higher embodied energy structural materials will still cost the environment less than a wood frame racking that has to be replaced one or more times during the equipment’s lifetime.

Wood racking is completely acceptable for small installations but ideally will be made with larger timbers, not small dimensional lumber. Ultimately, even a well-made wood frame will deteriorate before the life of that PV array, so why not just build the frame to match and not risk those conductors to a shifting frame in the future? Install racking that will hold up to the lifetime of the equipment and weather our Canadian climate that includes exposure to snow, wind, rain, sun and repeated freeze-thaw cycles.

Roof Mounts

Reputable installers will have roof racking and installation procedures for preventing water penetration for all roof types. If you are building new, standing seam steel roofs provide a surface for solar clamp attachment that gives excellent structural support and avoids roof penetrations altogether. If you have a shingle roof that is in need of replacement soon you will most likely want to wait until it is replaced to install your PV system but you can check in with your roofer and PV supplier about your plans to help you decide when to proceed.

Passive Home Heating: Winter Sun (4 min read)

You can tell the time of the year in a passive solar home by where the light falls into the home (or not) on a sunny day. As the winter solstice approaches, the sun falls into the back of the home, until on the day of the solstice, I designed for it to reach the very back wall of my home.

You can see in the photo here, taken a few weeks ago in the late fall how the sunlight is streaming onto the thermal mass earthen floor, heating the mass. I like living my life close to the planet, connected to its patterns. Its the way humans have lived for thousands of years, like my ancestors in the British isles, the ancient pueblo cultures of the American southwest and multiple other places around the world – we know they lived with this awareness because they built their homes and other structures to mark solstices and to take advantage of this resource that is freely offered by our sun and the positioning of our planet.

Passive solar design and orientation of a home doesn’t provide all of its heat in my climate at 50 degrees north here in southern BC, Canada, but it does provide a considerable portion. Most of the rest of my heat is provided by a deep foundation thermal storage system connected to the active solar heating panels mounted on the roof. The engineer’s calculations estimated that the wood I use for top-up winter heat would be needed for only about 20% of the home’s heat. To put that into perspective, most conventional homes in the area use about a pickup truck’s worth of wood per month, for about 6 months of the year. I so far have used only 2 pickup truck loads per year. I also typically start burning wood a month later in the fall than my neighbours and stop burning a month earlier than them in the spring. (Note: Ideally the home’s top-up heat would be electric, but because I live rurally, use such a small amount of wood, have a good local supply of standing deadwood for wood and the grid here is often down, I chose wood combustion for this home).

Similarly, passive solar design provides a proportion of cooling in the opposite time of the year. As summer progresses, the wide eaves on the home shade and keep the sun from entering. Carefully placed efficient windows yield light but not heat in the summer months. The thickly insulated straw bale walls provide insulation. Along with careful manual window opening and closing, efficient windows, carefully sized and placed provide low-tech, simple temperature control. The house is cooled at night with outdoor air by opening windows sited to gather the almost-always-present valley winds and closing them at day to prevent heat gain. This is all that is required to keep the home cool, even in the traditionally hot summers of this semi-arid region of BC where days can sometimes reach up to 40C.

Why aren’t more homes built this way? Well, that’s why I am writing this, hoping to increase awareness. We also need both land use planning and building code improvements based on local and regional resources, to encourage and require it. The BC Step code is ‘stepping’ in the right direction. But much more could be done. In urban areas, land use planning could take into better account access to the solar resource, both for passive design and for solar electricity access, things that future community designs will ideally be planned around, creating better access for all buildings.

Land use plans need to strategically take advantage of local topography, so that buildings (and food gardens) can access the sun. Buildings need to be able to align their axis east-west as needed and be protected from shading by adjacent structures. We can use east and west slope roofs to gather the solar resource for electricity and heat, but significantly more is gained from direct south exposure. East and West windows require planning to mitigate potential overheating. Ideally all structures built now and in future should have their alignment designed to take full advantage of this resource, for electricity and heating and also for home comfort and light. These things, along with efficient design strategies and materials, can make our building stock part of the many solutions for Climate Change.~

Sustainable Building – What can I do?

Published in Interior Wellness Magazine, Fall 2014.

“In Canada, buildings are responsible for: 33 percent of all energy used; 50 percent of natural resources consumed; 12 percent of non-industrial water used; 25 percent of landfill waste generated; 10 percent of airborne particulates produced; and 35 percent of greenhouse gases emitted.” (Green Building in North America: Opportunities and Challenges. Secretariat for Commission on Environmental Co-operation. 2008.)

Use Less of the Planet
A building’s energy consumption will exist for its lifetime according to its design and its occupants’ habits. There is also the energy cost of the materials that go into the creation of the building and the fuels and materials used in the construction event itself. “Embodied energy” is the total of energy inputs used to create and deliver a product or service and it is a valuable way to consider how we build. Make it count.

Create a Healthy Home
Many typical construction products off-gas toxic materials. The Living Building Challenge’s (LBC) Red List and the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating standards assist us in choosing healthier products for our buildings

Design to Use Less
In terms of energy-use standards, several rating systems exist. Many of you are familiar with LEED, which several buildings in Kamloops meet. There is also Passivhaus, a European standard of overall efficiency which many homes in North America have now met. There are also the distinctions of being Net Zero – this may be Net Zero Electricity or Net Zero [total] Energy. The Energy Star program also rates buildings as well as appliances and products for efficiency.

Design to Provide More
Both LEED and the LBC incorporate multiple standards of sustainability, attempting to encourage not only more efficient design, but healthier buildings and healthier communities. It is possible to create net positive effects on inhabitants, environment and community with our buildings.

What Can I Do?
You don’t need to be building to a rating standard to make use of them. Read about these standards, look at what they value and at how different designers and builders have met their requirements in different ways. On your next project ask your contractors and suppliers questions about what they provide and how they can design for efficiency, use less, create less waste, employ healthier designs/products and include or plan for solar electricity and hot water. Consider the embodied energy in your products. Purchase cleaner and more local materials where possible. Ask for Energy Star, LEED-approved and LBC Red-list free products; they are often available but may not be on display. By making informed changes, however small, we offer others a base of information and drive the shift to a healthier, more resilient, economically and socially healthy, sustainable community. ~

Grid-Tied Solar Electricity

Originally published in Interior Wellness Magazine, Summer 2014.

Solar electricity, or PV (short for photovoltaics) is a viable renewable energy source for Kamloops and the BC Interior here and now!

Our solar resource in Kamloops is greater than many other parts of Canada and Europe. Solar PV prices have now dropped to a level that payback for a system can be realized in 10 to 15 years depending on system size, southern exposure and utility price increases. Both major utility companies have adopted a two-tiered rate schedule and price increases that have long been held back, have started. It now makes financial sense to include or plan for solar in all your renovation and building plans.

Isn’t renewable energy too intermittent to provide large-scale Grid power?

Actually, no. Europeans and Americans have successfully turned to renewable energy despite having more technical challenges to do so than BC. In Europe and California, outgoing power from fossil- and nuclear fuel plants must be adjusted to allow for the variable input of renewable energy sources, unlike BC where our large hydro dam system gives us more flexibility. The patterns of our water levels and high resource times from renewables sync well, aiding this integration. [Also, we now have a rapidly growing battery market that will continue to make integration easier].

To see the impact of solar and other renewable-generated power, we can look at the US and Europe. In 2012, PV generated approximately 5.3 percent of Germany’s total net power consumed. PV and all other renewable energy combined in Germany in 2012 provided almost 29 percent of total net power consumed. Last November, Denmark reached a daily high of 122% of its power being provided by wind energy. Germany had a high of wind power as well the same day and yet their integrated grid functioned well. Record amounts of renewable energy continue to be made each year in both countries. In California this March, PV hit several highs of providing up to 18 percent of daily demand. [Of course, these numbers are all higher now, as the affordability of renewables worldwide has only come down since this writing and uptake has continued to increase. More on this in another blog entry!]

The benefits to building more solar PV into the provincial power grid go far beyond the financial. Installing residential and commercial-scale grid-tied PV and other renewable energy generation helps our community by creating local economic development, enhancing security and building long term societal benefits. It helps the environment, displacing coal and gas generation and causing less need for new hydro development. It helps the utility, creating increased generation capacity, resiliency against peak demand and can yield savings in transmission and distribution costs.

BC currently enjoys one of North America’s lowest rates for electricity and this partly explains why we have not seen more widespread use of PV. But Grid Parity is here, now. Do the math and consider – does your granite countertop or other esthetic item give you a better return on investment while at the same time help save the planet? PV does both, even now at current utility rates.

As part of a continent-wide grid, the more we green our grid, the more we assist other jurisdictions to green theirs by selling them our greener power. Our grid is already one of the greenest in the world. By adding grid-tied solar and other renewable energy, it becomes potentially the greenest and resilient in the world.~

On and Off-Grid Renewable Energy Systems

This article was initially published in Interior Wellness magazine’s Spring 2014 issue (pg 17). It is still relevant; many people are still learning about how renewable energy systems work.

Do you know the difference between the types of renewable energy systems?

In the renewable energy business, we often refer to “on-grid” or off-grid”. These terms refer to whether or not the site receives power from a utility. If your home, cottage or business is supplied with electricity supplied by BC Hydro, Fortis BC or another utility, it is “on-grid”.

A renewable energy system can be one of 3 general types

“Off-grid”, a stand-alone power system using a sun, wind and/or water source plus batteries and fossil-fueled generator.

“On-grid”, feeding the energy it provides to your home and as well as back into the utility grid.

“On-grid with battery and/or generator back-up”, which feeds into the grid but has the added capability to supply back-up power if the grid goes down.

We can also create community power systems that can be “off-grid” and can form their own independent ‘micro’ grid supplying multiple homes or businesses.

Shouldn’t we get off the grid?
Many people want to “get off the grid” and think that this will help the environment. What they may not realize is that to be off-grid, they [almost always unless they have an exceptional combination of natural resources] must have a battery bank and fueled generator to maintain their batteries and provide back-up power. Batteries, while recyclable, are energy intensive to produce and currently form a significant portion of the investment in an off grid power system. Fuel also costs money and the environment.

The Value of being Grid-tied:
In other parts of the world, where the utility is coal-fired, one could argue for the green value of going off-grid, but here in BC, while we can choose to do that for independence or due to high utility interconnection costs, it cannot provide a smaller carbon footprint. Off-grid systems are also unable to take advantage of all the energy produced at peak resource times. If you are grid-tied, all the power that you harvest from your renewable source is fed back into the utility grid, wasting none of it. If you have the ability to be grid-tied, this would be your first choice for both financial and environmental reasons.

More to explain the value of being grid-tied, consider overall efficiency and economy of scale. BC has an amazing asset in its legacy of large dams that form the main source of electricity for our grid. They provide us with a storage system for energy that has a low environmental cost. These dams can act as a large battery bank that interacts almost seamlessly with solar and wind power. Integrated into the grid, the electricity that we get from solar and wind, which is intermittent, allows us to draw down our dammed water less, effectively ‘storing’ that energy, creating a more resilient grid. It is a personal choice to be off-grid, depending on one’s desire for independence, the costs of utility interconnection, utility dependability, lifestyle and personal preference. The choice to be off-grid is not ‘bad’ for the environment, but should be made with an understanding of the factors involved. ~

Sustainable Energy and Efficiency

This information was published in Interior Wellness Magazine, Winter 2013. I am re-posting here as its still relevant as an overview for people wanting to better understand sustainable energy systems and how efficiency fits into the picture. Its the first part of a four-part series.

Sustainable energy is defined as “the sustainable provision of energy that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”. (Wikipedia. Accessed 2013.12.11).

Technologies that are typically considered to provide sustainable energy include those designed to improve energy efficiency as well as renewable energy technologies like solar energy, wind energy, tidal energy, wave power and hydroelectricity.

Residential scale and small commercial scale renewable energy technologies include things like solar electric panels (also called photovoltaics or PV), wind generators and micro or very small hydro electricity power sources. There is also solar hot water production, sometimes called solar thermal (not to be confused with concentrated solar thermal, a commercial‐scale hybrid form of solar electricity production).

Sustainable building technologies also form an important part of a sustainable energy future, as buildings use a significant amount of the energy we consume for heat, power and maintenance and in their construction and materials. Often unnoticed are water and waste processing technologies. It takes significant amounts of energy to clean, process and move the water that we use and “wastes” that we produce.

Why is Efficiency so important?
It costs money and energy to produce power, whether the power source is your BC Hydro or Fortis utility or your personal Solar, Wind or Water generator(s). It generally costs significantly more to produce power (to buy or build the equipment to do so) than it does to employ efficiency or reduction measures. This is an important concept.

Most North Americans and especially British Columbians, enjoy some of the most affordable power in the world and as such, we turn on, plug‐in and fire up our devices, lights, generators and vehicles, and leave them on, in the past, without a second thought.

Most utilities have helpful web pages with good efficiency information on them that are a great starting place and guide to participating more in practicing efficiency in your home or business. For utility‐connected customers, BC Hydro and Fortis BC also now offer online display of your account, so you can track your power usage in more detail very easily.

Natural Resources Canada also provides lots of great information on efficiency, as well as building science and other sustainability issues.

Neighbourhood Llama Inspects new Straw Bale Home

During the home construction, a wild Llama was on the loose and seemed to adopt my place. I had contacted the Llama sanctuary folks as I was concerned that with supplies, crew and construction noise, the llama was going to run off and never be caught. I needn’t have worried; she almost seemed to enjoy all the action and spent each morning and evening inspecting the construction’s evolution. As seen above she really seemed to like the large shelter that was created by the roofing of the timber frame. The Llama sanctuary folks helped me to catch her and we managed to get her loaded up and re-homed to a good home where she became the caretaker to a herd of cashmere goats for a fibre artist-farmer.