Special for Earth Hour: Solar PV at Tower Power Toronto

Tonight at 8:30pm we’ll celebrate Earth Hour, when we all turn out the lights for an hour. Although mostly symbolic, this should actually translate to reduced power consumption; in Ontario, you can track this on the IESO Earth Hour site which will show a graph of actual consumption against that of a typical Saturday night.

Being green is a trendy thing to do, but some people have been doing it long before it became fashionable: the members of Tower Power Toronto, for example, who focus on energy savings for multi-unit buildings such as condos and co-ops. I attended a meeting of the Tower Power group earlier this year to hear all about solar photovoltaic (that is, solar panels that make electricity directly rather than heating water) and some of the recent government initiatives to make this a reality for small condo buildings like mine. We met at the Windward Co-op, where they have already undertaken a number of green initiatives such as thermal solar (solar hot water heating as a pre-heat for domestic hot water) that has reduced their hot water costs by 40%.

My other half is an electrical engineer, and when I told him that I was attending a meeting about solar PV, he pooh-poohed it as inefficient and expensive, costing more per kWh than we could save. He’s right about that: the high cost (and relative inefficiency) of solar PV panels makes it infeasible for generating power for our building directly. Furthermore, even if we felt that it was a good thing to do, the condo reserve fund cannot be used for solar PV projects, meaning that we would have to create a special assessment such that the owners would pay the costs directly. In a building like ours, where the resale timeframe is fairly short, that just wouldn’t fly.

This is where the government incentives come in: the provincial government would really like us to start greening up, in part to reduce the load on current electricity infrastructure, increase the resiliency of the power grid, help phase out coal-fired electricity generation by 2014, and reduce the cost of having to buy electricity from other provinces or states during time of peak loads. If you take a look at the ISEO website, which shows Ontario electricity demand and the price paid for external electricity during peaks, you’ll see that prices for buying electricity from outside the province can be as high as $1.50/kWh. This also has a social value as well as an economic value by promoting micro-generation and green thinking.

To that effect, the Ontario Power Authority started the Feed-In Tariff (FIT) program whereby you can sell up to 10kW of electricity that you generate (e.g., using solar PV) back to your local power authority (in our case, Toronto Hydro) for $0.802 per kWh on a 20-year contract. Given the current cost of installing solar PV, and the fact that the panels are expected to have nearly zero maintenance costs during the 20-year period, the panels pay for themselves in about 13 years: in other words, that provides seven years of electricity revenue free and clear after the panels are paid off. Current domestic electricity costs in Ontario are around $0.012 per kWh, so OPA is willing to pay you over six times the current price of electricity in order to subsidize your solar PV installation, since they will eventually save the cost of having to build new power generating facilities.

As mentioned previously, condo reserve funds can’t be used to fund solar PV installations, so there needs to be some other form of financing. Alternatives include:

  • Work on getting the condo laws changed so that reserve funds can be used for projects like this. Our local MPP, Rosario Marchese, is working on this, but this could take some time and may never occur.
  • Sell debentures to raise the money for the initial costs, then use the electricity revenue to pay off the debenture with interest. Residents of the building may choose to buy debentures, or anyone who is looking for an investment with a decent interest rate. The risk is that electricity revenues are not sufficient to cover the debenture costs, or that unexpected maintenance costs reduce revenues.
  • Use PV venture, venture firms that specialize in solar PV installations. They effectively own the solar PV system, installing the panels and taking the electricity, then pay a percentage of the monthly revenue to the building on which the panels are placed.
  • Non-profit organizations (including co-ops, but not condos) can take advantage of 0% loans available from the city of Toronto’s Sustainable Energy Funds including the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, which I heard about at a green energy panel that Olivia Chow hosted last year.
  • Live Green Toronto (another city initiative) has some limited grant funding for education and feasibility studies; condos are not eligible but could partner with a not-for-profit.

For buildings within the city of Toronto, you’d be selling power to Toronto Hydro, but the contract would be with the Ontario Power Authority, who are backing the FIT and microFIT programs. OurPower, part of the Toronto Renewable Energy Co-operative can perform assessments on a building to estimate the feasibility and costs: there needs to be a place with good sun exposure (usually the roof) to mount the panels, a method for connecting the panels to the electrical room, an inverter to convert the DC electricity generated by the panels to AC, and a metered connection from the inverter to the power grid. That means that you’d have two meters: one for inbound electricity at the usual market rate (e.g., $0.013/kWh), and one for the outbound electricity that you generate at $0.802/kWh. Ideally, installation would be coordinated with the building roof replacement schedule; otherwise, you’d have to remove and remount the panels during any roof repairs. In addition to the panels, costs include cabling to the electrical room, any modifications required to the roof membrane, insurance, and maintenance (considering a 20-year replacement cycle for the panels, but more frequently for the inverter). Solar PV panels are usually stationary; although panels that move to track the sun generate more electricity, they also have higher maintenance costs due to the moving parts. In order to qualify for the FIT/microFIT program, 50% of the equipment must be manufactured in Ontario, but that can include the framing, inverters and labour costs in addition to the panels. There are some local solar PV manufacturers, including Photowatt and SolGate, making it possible to put together a solution that pumps some money back into the local economy as well as providing green benefits.

How much energy could we really generate with this? Well, our building probably has 200-300 square metres of roof space that could be used; using the estimate of 1 square metre generating 150W in peak sun for a total of about 1kWh/day, that means 200-300 kWh/day, or $160-240/day in electricity revenue. I’m not sure if that 1kWh/day/square metre is an average over the year, or the value for a sunny summer day; assuming that that amount could be generated 1/3 of the time, that’s still $19.5k-29k per year in electricity revenue. As for costs, using a provided estimate of $10k/kW; I’m taking a leap in logic and assuming that’s equivalent to 1000/150 = 6.7 square metres of solar panel, which would be a cost of $300k-450k for the initial installation. That gives an ROI of just over 15 years; assume that my estimate of electricity generated is conservative, I can see how this works out to an average 13-year ROI.

At the end of the 20-year contract to deliver electricity to Toronto Hydro, you’d be in a position to renegotiate a contract with them to continue to provide power, or switch to providing power directly to your own building if then-current price of electricity makes that a better deal.

When you talk about residential solar power, many people think of thermal solar, but there are some fundamental differences:

Solar Photovoltaic Thermal Solar
Photovoltaic panels generate electricity directly from sunlight Water in pipes warmed by sun used as a pre-heat for domestic hot water (hot tap water or central building heat)
Generates revenue by creating electricity to sell back to Toronto Hydro Generates savings by reducing gas consumption for domestic hot water system
Panels connected by cabling to building electrical system Panels connected by (water) piping to building hot water system
All electricity sold to grid, hence no wasted capacity Hot water used only by building and can’t be shared
Peak capacity during summer when demands on power grid are at maximum Peak capacity during summer may be wasted if more hot water is generated than building requires
ROI can be calculated before project start ROI is based on actual gas costs over life of project

It used to be the case that thermal solar was the only economically feasible alternative for residential buildings; however, the FIT/microFIT program brings the cost-benefit calculations for thermal versus PV much closer together.

If you’re in Toronto and interested in learning more, come out to a Tower Power Toronto meeting. OurPower hosts a wiki page for Tower Power Toronto; it’s sadly out of date, since it shows the next meeting as the January meeting, but it contains contact information and I may take it on myself to update the page when I receive notice of the next meeting.

I’ll leave you with a video of Rob Hopkins from last year’s TED conference, on transitioning to a world without oil:

More HD experiments

Living with an electrical engineer is always…interesting. I’m also an engineer, but my desire to tinker is more software-oriented than hardware, whereas Damir likes to build things. After our initial experiments with the HD TV antenna that we bought for $35, he started researching on the web, and ended up building three other HD antennae.

HD antenna 2.0 - the first homebuildFirst up was actually the most expensive of the home-builds, since he bought heavy-gauge wire instead of using the coathangers suggested in the YouTube video that inspired it. It was mounted on a piece of Ikea shelving that we had lying around (if it had been the final version, we would have trimmed it back just to a single wooden stick), and consisted of the above-mentioned copper wire ($13), a TV matching transformer (needed on all the antennae to convert the signal to the coax connection to go to the TV, $1) and some screws for that shelving that we already had. With no amplification, it worked as well as the commercial one that is amplified, although we couldn’t find the sweet spot that allowed us to get all 7 HD channels — or at least the 5 that we care about — without moving it around. Also, it could have put out someone’s eye.

HD antenna 3.0 designThat night, he took his copy of the ARRL handbook to bed to brush up on his antenna theory.

The next model, a discone model, never made it past the early prototype stage. Shown here is the cone part (he was still working on the disc part), which would have been covered with aluminum foil. He later found this to not be the right type anyway, but he had fun making (and wearing) the cones.

More research ensued.

HD TV antenna 4.0The 3rd version, a.k.a. HD antenna 4.0, is what we’re sticking with for now. It’s made of two sections cut from aluminum foil (yes, the type from the kitchen) taped to an old wooden ruler. The sections are connected on one side by a 390 ohm resistor (4 for $0.25), and on the other by the TV matching transformer. You can see a close-up of the construction in an earlier phase when he was trying it out on a larger board here; he calculated the exact size of the foil pieces from his antenna theory textbook. Technically, it’s a T2FD antenna.

The antenna-on-a-ruler is attached with 2-sided sticky pads to an old wooden salad server, then mounted on an unused tripod to allow us to easily move it around to find the right spot.

With this configuration, we get the five main HD digital channels that we wanted without moving the antenna: CBC, CTV, CityTV, Global and Sun TV. We can also get Omni 1 and Omni 2 if we move it around, but we rarely watch those so aren’t concerned about it.

Keep in mind that we are less than 1km from the CN Tower, but are west of Spadina and face west, so we’re bouncing our signals off the surrounding buildings. When we tried our Philips antenna (the one that we bought) at a neighbour’s place that has a clear line of sight to the tower, it picked up 7 or 8 HD channels with no fiddling, and several VHF channels as well (since her TV used a single feed for both analog and digital tuners).

I’ve now cancelled our Rogers cable, which will take effect mid-August. The only remaining thing is to use the (currently unused) Philips antenna as a VHF antenna to pick up the lower-range analog channels and feed them to the DVR (which has no digital tuner) and then on to the TV via the HDMI connection — if we get any decent reception on VHF, that will allow us to watch and record those channels.

HD OTA experiments

An online conversation with a few friends last week got me thinking harder about something that’s been on my mind lately: is it possible to get rid of my Rogers cable subscription, and get TV signals the old-fashioned way: with an antenna? This is now referred to as “OTA” (over the air) for those in the know, and there’s a whole range of digital HD channels that you can pick up in addition to the old familiar analog ones.

We already had pared back to the most basic analog cable plan, with no desire for several hundred channels of additional crap that we wouldn’t watch at additional cost, and when we got the Wii a few weeks ago, our TV watching dropped to less than an hour per day on average. We rent movies a couple times a month, read a lot of books, and, of course, there’s the internet: a vast library of fascinating material in a variety of formats. Although the US networks and Hulu block viewing of full TV episodes from Canada, some of our networks do show full episodes online of a few programs, such as Mad Men on CTV.

So, for the cost of one month of our basic cable, we picked up a Philips indoor DTV/HDTV antenna to see how OTA would work for us. We live near Richmond and Spadina, in a west-facing apartment on a low floor: that means that we face away from the CN Tower, source of most OTA signals in the Toronto area (although within 1km of it) and have a lot of taller buildings in the way.

We plugged in the antenna to the DTV port on our TV, scanned for channels, and wham! There was CBC in beautiful HD, completely without distortion. A few hours of playing around, and we found 6 additional channels, including CTV and Global, which syndicate many of the popular US shows during evening prime time. Here’s the rundown of what we can receive:

Station DTV channel Zap2It channel
CBC (CBLT) 5 5
CTV (CFTO) 9 9
Omni 2 (CJMT) 44 69
City TV 57 57
Omni 1 (CFMT) 64 47
Global (CIII) 65 6
Sun TV (CKXT) 66 45

The Zap2It channel is the corresponding channel if you use Zap2It for TV listings, and select Toronto – Local Broadcast as the source: I set my preferences on that site so that I see a grid of only these stations, in this order, as my TV guide.

Unfortunately, we haven’t found a single position that brings in all channels: CBC, Global and CTV seem to be best when bounced off the top of a taller building to the southwest of us, while SunTV is best reflected from the building directly across the road. CityTV and the two OMNI stations are picked up when the antenna is pointed directly towards the tower, that is, through our building. We’re still experimenting, and need a longer cable so that we can try some other locations within our apartment. If we lived in a higher or south-facing unit, I’m sure that the results would be radically different, and we might even pick up some Buffalo stations across the lake if we were high enough, but this is good enough for our TV-watching habits.

Up and flying

Parts arrived today, and the remote-controlled helicopter is up and flying again, this time in the building gym where there’s high ceilings and no furniture:

Adventures in R/C land

Damir’s birthday was a couple of weeks ago, and I gave him a gift that I felt reflected the gravity of turning 46: a remote-controlled helicopter. Thanks to some advice from the swarm (thanks, Jeff!), I found Hobby Hobby, a store that specializes in remote-controlled everything: planes, helis, cars, and parts for anything that you want to build for yourself.

I gave it to him last Monday, then I left Tuesday afternoon for 6 days on the east coast, leaving him to presumably get some work done for his customers and maybe play with the heli a bit. Yeah, right.

Tuesday evening’s update arrived by email:

Here is what I’ve learned so far.

1. The heli can be expected to hover in spot without controls for up to a minute.

2. Blade balancing is very important. Will need set of micro-tools for that.

3. Temperature drift will influence gyro electronics so the heli will drift differently over time – several solutions for that. Also the thickness of tape used to glue gyro to the body is important – it should filter out the vibration.

So far I have managed to land on the island – few crashes along the way, nothing serious. Will try to land on bed in bedroom.

Hmmm. So he’s starting to do some tuning, and has found a reason to buy new tools. No big surprise so far.

Then, Wednesday evening’s update:

We had a crash. The ceiling got in the way, actually the top bedroom door rail.

Lower main blades cracked, left landing skid broken, rear body right stabilizer cracked.

Fortunately they have all the parts in hobbyhobby. Waiting for the shipment.

This is fun.

Apparently, he’d already been on some newsgroups that day and figured out how to hack the controller, then ordered a book about it from Hobby Hobby in the morning. By midday, the blades had been cracked and he ordered a couple of those. By the end of the day, the landing skid bit it and he was placing his third order of the day.

With the holiday weekend in the way, the shipment hasn’t arrived yet, so the heli’s been grounded since Wednesday, and I haven’t seen it fly higher than the 6″ that I captured in the video above. Since I’m leaving again tomorrow for a conference in Las Vegas, I may hide the package if it arrives today, so that I get at least a quick look at it before the next crash. 🙂

Lazy Sunday

Sunday afternoon snoozeWith us both coming off head colds, it was a lazy Sunday (except for the pancake outing and some grocery shopping). Afternoon naps, then home-cooked chili with fresh baguette followed by a bit of TV.

I, Robot was on, and Damir watched it while I drifted around between kitchen and living room and office. I dropped in for a few parts, like the nude scene of Will Smith in the shower, still all pumped up like he was in Ali.

I looked at Will.

Damir looked at me looking at Will (maybe I was drooling).

I reluctantly tore my eyes away from the TV.

“Hey baby,” I said, “his boobs are way too big, I like yours much better.” After all, when you guys say the same about a woman that you’re checking out, it’s the truth, right?

Jerry has (had) a friend

After last week’s mousecapades, we figured that the entry hole was blocked from our side and we were free of mice, although there were still some odd scramblings inside walls at times. For good measure, we picked up a couple of traps, and set out two of the glue type and one of the old-fashioned snap type baited with almond butter.

Yesterday, Damir and I both worked from home, and in the afternoon (as is his habit when working at home), he went for a little nap. A while later, the bedroom door slides open and he emerges holding the mousetrap, without a mouse but also licked clean of almond butter. He had watched while the mouse visited the trap several times, licking away and even standing on the trap — I have a visual of the mouse spread-eagled over the spring mechanism like a Cirque du Soleil acrobat — but not setting the trap off. Personally, I was amazed that he lay in bed watching not one, but several visits of the mouse to the trap before he arose. Then, when he moved, the mouse scooted away (at lightspeed) down the hallway towards the bathroom and laundry.

We started investigating where it went, and I went into the closet and picked up a duffel bag off the floor, and a brown blur zipped out of the closet at my feet and sped further down the hall. I actually shrieked. Now, I’m not a really girly screamer type, but I’ll make an exception when something surprises me like that. We checked the bathroom — no mouse — and concluded that he was in the laundry closet hiding under the washer. We baited several traps and put them outside the door: a couple of snap traps with carrot (Damir had by now determined that we had to use something that the little guy had to gnaw in order to trip the spring), and a couple of glue traps with bits of carrot and goat cheese added to the centre, looking like little mouse sushi trays. We also put a snap trap with carrot over near the windowsill where Damir had originally seen it, and where we knew the point of entry had to be.

We closed the bedroom door, and because it was Valentine’s Day, were making preparations for a nice dinner at home when we heard a trap snap in the bedroom. An exchange of glances. A raised eyebrow. I hand him a plastic bag, and he heads to the bedroom. He checks the traps by the laundry — no mouse — but finds our little friend dead in the one by the window. At this point, because he’s a guy, he picks it up and starts waving it around, as if he had caught the damned thing with his bare hands. No, I don’t really want to see it, thanks. No, I don’t want to take a picture of it. Finally, he gets the point, it goes into the bag and the bag goes down the garbage chute. I postpone dinner while I get the dead mouse visual out of my head.

Billy Bob and DennisLater, I re-raise the issue of cats; specifically, the two kittens that my neighbour’s sister is giving away. Damir, who has been resisting this idea although he really likes cats, says “I saw Tom and Jerry, I know that the cat never catches the mouse!”

That’s when it finally strikes me why he named the first mouse Jerry.

A mouse in the house

Sometimes it just doesn’t pay to go away somewhere nice and warm in the middle of winter. I’m off in Jacksonville, Florida this week, so ended up having a Skype text chat with Damir earlier today while I was between conference sessions:

[10:24:29 AM] Damir says: caught a mouse last night
[10:24:39 AM] Sandy says: a mouse?? in our place???
[10:24:44 AM] Damir says: yep
[10:24:51 AM] Sandy says: funny, i thought that i heard something scrambling around the night before
[10:24:54 AM] Damir says: on windowsill in bedroom
[10:25:02 AM] Sandy says: we need to set some traps
[10:25:09 AM] Damir says: found the hole too
[10:25:14 AM] Sandy says: where?
[10:25:33 AM] Damir says: cable face plate behind the couch
[10:25:42 AM] Sandy says: get some traps from the hardware store and set them, just the cheap ones that we can throw out when they snap
[10:26:05 AM] Damir says: ok, but this is the only one
[10:26:16 AM] Sandy says: what, a lone bachelor mouse? i don’t think so
[10:26:49 AM] Damir says: well, the others are in that duct below windows
[10:27:15 AM] Sandy says: not surprising, i suppose. did you block the hole?
[10:27:20 AM] Damir says: yes
[10:27:30 AM] Sandy says: of course, dumb question 🙂
[10:27:53 AM] Damir says: named him Jerry, want me to keep him till you return?

I’m starting to get a strange feeling about this…

[10:28:02 AM] Sandy says: no thanks…
[10:28:31 AM] Damir says: maybe we could give him to Val [our neighbour] for the cats to play with

At this point, I come to the alarming conclusion that he didn’t actually *kill* the mouse yet…

[10:28:40 AM] Sandy says: is he still alive??
[10:29:39 AM] Damir says: yes – I have him in that plastic garbage bin – put a lid on it
[10:29:58 AM] Sandy says: please kill him, take him and dump him in the park if you can’t stand to do it yourself
[10:30:30 AM] Damir says: I may put him in plastic container & microwave
[10:30:40 AM] Sandy says: NOOOO
[10:30:48 AM] Damir says: cruel?
[10:30:50 AM] Sandy says: take him to the park and let him go, the cold will kill him
[10:31:29 AM] Damir says: ok

Hours elapse…

[5:44:37 PM] Damir says: sorry to report, but jerry is no longer with us..
[5:44:53 PM] Sandy says: poor jerry…did he go for a walk in the park?
[5:45:24 PM] Damir says: I don’t want to talk about it..
[5:45:43 PM] Damir says: He is in the better place now..
[5:45:49 PM] Sandy says: it better not smell like microwaved mouse in the apt when i get home…


With the rearranging of the furniture caused by Damir moving in and having to have a bit of office space, my dining table and chairs have gone into storage and we’re currently eating our meals off the coffee table — not my favourite arrangement since it leads to a lot of crumbs on the carpet. There’s a great little island counter in the kitchen with an extended overhang on two sides to accommodate a couple of stools, and I haven’t found anything that I like downtown so yesterday morning we trekked out to the Chair Source, a great place for chairs but a hell of a long way out of downtown. I had been there with a friend a few years ago when he bought a counter stool for his kitchen, and I think that it’s even bigger now, amazing selection.

Damir’s not much for shopping (which is quite an understatement), and I thought that I did well to get him around the store and pick out a few stools that we liked. Funnily enough, we settled on the first one that we tried out — small footprint, modern design, comfy back and seat. His patience started to run out when we got to the finish and fabric swatches: he’s never bought furniture that wasn’t at Ikea, and had no idea that you pick the furniture, then pick the fabric, then they go off and make it for you. He was itching to head for the car and quite willing to just let me pick what I wanted, and we settled on the black matte finish for the legs and a caramel-coloured textured faux leather for the upholstery. Should match the black appliances and blond maple floors and cabinets well.

Unfortunately, because it’s all custom made, there’s a 4-6 week wait while they make the damned things, which means at least another month of crumbs on the rug.

Window goo

Usually when I write about windows, it’s about the type that runs on my laptop. This time, however, it’s about the window box in which I have a little herb garden. With no balcony, a window box is about the best that I can do for a garden, but it gave me enough space for basil, rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano and mint — my most frequent cooking herbs. The only problem that I’ve had is that someone in an apartment above me (I’m on the 3rd of 8 floors) smokes at their window occasionally, and throws the cigarette butts out, some of which land in my window box. The city air is dirty enough that I wash everything before I eat it anyway, so it’s just a bit gross, but not that big a deal.

I noticed yesterday that things were a bit droopy because of the lack of rain, and opened up the window this morning to give them some water. To my surprise, the entire bottom of the plastic tray was completely melted out through the metal frame that it rests in, and all the plants dead. It looks as if someone has poured acid into it, although I can’t imagine how someone in a floor above could have done that without damaging other things, so it’s a complete mystery to me. I was so freaked out by it and assumed that it contained some noxious substance that I chucked it down the garbage chute without first taking a picture, now I wish that I had photographed it first.

Continuing weirdness in my week.