Renewable energy projects make sense both economically and environmentally

Written by Dallas McQuarrie on May 24, 2018

Bobby Pitre from Collette built a solar heating panel from 900 pop cans to heat his 1,200 square foot garage for both economic and for environmental reasons. Photo by Dallas McQuarrie.

While climate change makes the need to replace fossil fuels with non-polluting, alternative sources of energy quite urgent, leadership in developing clean, renewable energy sources is not coming from the politicians.  The versatility and value of renewable energy technologies is being demonstrated in everything from “do it yourself” projects to large and small commercial ventures.

For those who like the do it yourself” approach, Bobby Pitre’s home-made solar panel shows what can be done.  Pitre lives in Collette, a rural community near Rogersville in Northumberland County.

A combination of “environmental considerations and rising heating costs” led Pitre to make a solar panel from pop cans to heat his garage. The garage, which Pitre also built, is 1,200 square feet, with a 12-foot high ceiling,

Pitre’s solar panel consists of “60 columns of pop cans, with each column 15 pop cans high.”  The solar panel is mounted on the south side of Pitre’s garage.

As well as producing free heat in the fall, winter and spring, Pitre’s solar heating panel is pollution free. Unlike shale gas and other fossil fuels, it doesn’t release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contaminate water sources or destroy land with toxic by-products.

Each of the 900 pop cans used in Pitre’s solar panel has its bottom removed and extra holes added to the top to allow the free passage of air through the cans. The pop cans are held together by a sealant, and painted a flat black to enable them to absorb more heat from the sun.

“Building a solar panel with 900 pop cans did take some time,” Pitre said, but he notes that two smaller pop can solar arrays have already been built in the Collette area.  As well, members of Our Environment, Our Choice, a Kent County environment group, have traveled to Collette to learn about generating pollution-free heat from sunshine and pop cans.

“It’s a great set up because the solar panel provides free heat whenever the sun is shining,” Pitre said.  “The disadvantage is that the heat is not regulated, so if it gets too hot, you have to open a window or provide a vent to the outside for the heated air.”

“I wanted to heat my garage as cheaply as possible, and a pop can solar panel does that” at a small up front cost.  The up front cost is for a thermostat, fan and related switches that turn the unit on and off, and circulate the air. Once in place, Pitre said he uses “about half the electricity of a kitchen toaster” to run the fan and thermostat.

The fan pushes air from the garage into a duct along the bottom of Pitre’s solar panel. As sunlight heats up the black pop cans, the heated air rises to the top of the array and into another duct that brings the heated air into the garage.

Pitre estimates his pop can solar panel saves him about $100 a month when in use during the fall, winter and spring. In the summer, the solar panel is covered by wood panels because energy from the sun is not needed.

“It’s not difficult to build, and I’d be glad to tell anyone how it’s done,” Pitre said. “As well, there are videos on YouTube that also describe how to build a solar panel from pop cans.”

The Jopp dairy farm near Sussex has nearly completed an expansion of its solar panel array that will increase the electricity produced from 75 to 145 kilowatts. Photo courtesy of NexGen Energy, Quispamsis.

Sunlight can also be converted to electricity, and that’s the path chosen by Frank Jopp on his dairy farm near Sussex in Kings County. Today the Jopp farm is also the site of New Brunswick’s first, and so far only, solar farm.

“I wanted to do something to reduce energy costs in our dairy barn because, like everything else, the price of electricity doesn’t go down, but goes steadily up over time,” Jopp said.  “And it’s become environmentally necessary to use clean energy.”

“We’re nearing completion of an expansion that will increase the electricity we produce from 75 to 135 kilowatts.”  That’s the amount of electricity used by about eight to ten homes in a day in New Brunswick.

Jopp’s solar array consists of 25 poles with 16 solar panels mounted on each pole. The power from the 400 solar panels (25 poles X 16 panels per pole) produced is sold to NB Power, which then sells Jopp back the electricity for his dairy operation.

Jopp’s dairy farm demonstrates that solar power is both economically viable and environmentally responsible. It also provides an actual working model of what individual farmers can do to lock in low energy prices for years to come using a clean energy source that does not damage future generations.

Oil and gas companies cost Canadian taxpayers $3.3 billion a year in government grants, subsidies and other forms of corporate welfare. Private citizens like Jopp and Pitre get no government help whatever for developing and using clean, renewable sources of energy that do not contribute to climate change.

Mark McAloon is the President and Co-owner of NexGen, an energy company in Quispamsis that installed Jopp’s solar array.

“A solar array can produce electricity for about seven cents a kilowatt hour, while residential customers in New Brunswick pay about eleven cents per kilowatt hour for electricity,” McAloon said.  “Micro-solar farms that convert sunlight to electricity are not only possible, but economically viable.”

Jopp’s solar panel will still be producing electricity for seven cents a kilowatt hour in 2040, while NB Power’s price over the next 20 years could increase from the current 11 cents per kilowatt hour to 20 cents a kilowatt hour.

“Once a solar array is in place, the cost of producing electricity from that array is ‘locked inl and won’t increase for the life span of the panel, which is 25 years,” he said.  “Renewable energy is an exciting field and, ultimately, it does comes down to numbers and cost savings.”

“Our primary focus right now is the agriculture industry because farmers, being big energy users, have a better understanding of the value of being able to lock in energy costs for 25 years.” Private residences are more of a “hard sell” because home owners don’t fully understand the long term economic payback of locking in low energy prices, McAloon said.

McAloon notes that having a clean, renewable energy source with long term low prices “adds to the value of a home.” Homeowners who want to learn about potential energy cost savings should first have an energy audit done by NB Energy, and that costs $99, he said.

While using renewable, clean energy sources is the smart thing to do both economically and environmentally, work to educate the homeowners and make people aware of the possibilities is needed.

McAloon points out that California now requires solar panels on all new construction, and that requirement is also common in many places in Europe. Europeans, and now Californians, are much more educated about both the need for, and the economic benefits of, converting to clean, sustainable energy such as wind or solar.

When constructed, the Tobique First Nation wind farm will produce enough electricity for about 4,500 homes in New Brunswick. It will use wind turbines like this one at the Pictou Landing Wind Farm. Photo courtesy of natural Forces Wind Inc.

While governments in Canada continue pumping tax dollars into the oil and gas industry, the Tobique First Nation is establishing a commercial wind farm. Tobique is one of six Wolastoqiyik, or Maliseet reserves in New Brunswick, and construction on its wind farm will begin next spring.

Amy Pellerin is with Natural Forces Wind Inc. (NFW), the company that will construct the Tobique wind farm. “When operating at full capacity, the Tobique project will produce enough electricity to provide power for 4,500 homes,” Pellerin said. NFW works with independent power producers to increase the number of renewable energy projects.

As with the Jopp dairy farm, the Tobique First Nation will sell the power it produces to New Brunswick Power. At full capacity, the power produced by the wind farm will displace 70,000 tons of CO2 a year that would otherwise be added to the atmosphere.

Pellerin points out that there are several wind farm projects on the go in the Maritimes, including one being planned for the Richibucto area. “Natural Forces Wind also has a project with 13 First Nation Bands in Nova Scotia.

“First Nations have a greater sense of urgency about helping to reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions,” she said.

It’s tragic that governments in Canada lack the vision of the Tobique First Nation, and people like Frank Jopp, Bobby Pitre and others who recognize that the time for sustainable energy has come.  Continuing to subsidize oil and gas companies means sacrificing future generations on the altar of corporate greed.

“Doing all we can to combat climate change comes with numerous benefits, from reducing pollution and associated health care costs to strengthening and diversifying the economy by shifting to renewable energy, among other measures,” said David Suzuki.

Dallas McQuarrie writes on the environment for the NB Media Co-op from Mi’kmaq territory at St. Ignace. 

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