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Putting energy on a 100-kilometre diet

OTTAWA — Renewable energy comes at a higher price in Canada. The small Canadian market for solar panels and wind turbines means manufacturers in Canada have to ship in parts from the U.S. and Europe.



Two men install a solar panel on a roof
Two men install a solar panel on a roof.

The Canadian conundrum surrounding renewable energy is that manufacturers in Canada have to order most of their parts from the U.S. and Europe. With all the energy used in shipping parts - and sometimes whole units - across oceans and down highways, should the 100-mile diet apply to energy too?

Scientists use a calculation called Energy Pay Back Time (EPBT) to rate the overall energy impact of a sustainable energy source - how long it takes a panel or turbine to produce as much energy as it took for it to be manufactured.

The average EPBT for a solar panel, according to Karl Knapp, is about two to three years. For a wind turbine, he says, it's about two to three months.

'We are only a few players in the mid-sized market. The industry focuses on the big (turbines).'

Knapp was one of the American scientists studying the EPBT of solar panels in the late 90s and early 2000s. Knapp says he and his team tried to take everything into consideration ñ right down to the energy used by pop machine in the plant where they built the solar panels. The one thing his report says they missed in their calculations, however, was the energy used to bring parts to the plant and transport the final product to the site where they are being used.

This might be the biggest factor in evaluating the efficiency of solar panels and wind turbines in Canada.

Dirtier shades of green

Énergie PGE is a Quebec company that designs and assembles the 35kW to 50kW turbines (mostly used on farms) from its home-base in Saint-Jean-Port-Poli, about 100 km east of Quebec City.

Illustration of the new wind turbine developed by Énergie Ressource Développement.
Énergie Ressource Développement uses mostly Canadian-made parts and assembles them in its Quebec plant.

While Énergie PGE makes its own blades on-site and use towers manufactured in Toronto and Missauga, Marc-André Normandin, the sales and marketing director at Énergie PGE, says the company gets air shipments of parts about once a month from Germany and Italy and has pieces rolling in on flat-bed trucks from the U.S. regularly.

Normandin says his company relies on imported parts because no one in Canada makes the components they need.

"We are only a few players in the mid-sized market," he says. "The industry focuses on the big (turbines)."

Ivan Reyes tells a similar story. He works at Centennial Solar, a Quebec company that has been manufacturing solar panels since 2004.

The company gets their solar cells from Germany because no one in Canada makes them. The solar cells are the 15-centimetre by 15-centimetre-square silicon bits that fit together to make the surface that captures energy from the sun.

"There isn't a high demand in Canada," Reyes explains. Centennial Solar is one of two Canadian manufacturers who make panels this particular size.

'It boils down to the same question: do you buy fluorescent bulbs, even though they have mercury?'

But, there is one Canadian company keeping it local.

Made in Canada

Énergie Ressource Développement (ERD) is an anomaly. Instead of placing rotating blades on a stand-up tower (think arms on a clock), wind gets caught in a horizontal turbine (think record on a turntable) and flows down through an L-shaped shaft.

The company also gets almost all of its parts in Quebec. The company only purchases the generators for their systems from abroad because they need to follow electrical codes specific to the country where they are installing the turbine, says Michel.

Regardless of how much energy is used in making solar panels and wind turbines, Rock Radovan says people will still invest in renewable energy.

People are still willing to take the "warts" of renewable energy over nuclear and coal energy production, says Radovan, the president of Sustainable Ottawa, a local volunteer association encouraging a more environmentally-friendly Ottawa.

"That trade-off depends on each individual person," says Radovan. Getting to make that decision "makes people feel less helpless," he says.

"It boils down to the same question: do you buy fluorescent bulbs, even though they have mercury?"

Frontpage photo courtesy of The Wild Center

Related Links

Énergie PGE

Centennial Solar

Énergie Ressource Développement (ERD)



It's payback time

Every research team has their own way of calculating Energy Pay Back Time, but Karl Knapp, one of the leading American researchers in EPBT in the late 90s and early 2000s says his team tried to make their study as "empirical" as possible.

His team actually built a solar panel and monitored the energy going into and coming out of it from start to finish.

Three main factors go into calculating the EPBT of a solar panel, wind turbine or the like, says Knapp. In simple terms, they look at how much energy is used to actually fit the pieces together, how much energy that machine can potentially produce when running at maximum capacity and the potential of the area (how much wind or sun there is) the turbine or panel is being used in.

Even if a solar panel is made using almost no energy, has the potential to produce lots of energy, but is placed somewhere with very little sunlight, the Energy Pay Back Time for that machine in that scenario is going to be a lot longer than the same machine, produced in the same situation set up somewhere bright and sunny.

The "ìmplementation" of a panel isn't the only place where things can get tricky.

Knapp says you also need to look at less visible energy-zapping processes involved in making a turbine or panel. "This embodied energy," says Knapp, "is the energy used to the make the concrete to make your house, for example."

These calculations can only be used for renewable energy, Knapp says. "You never get as much energy out as you put in."

He likens EPBT calculations to paying back a loan. You borrowed energy from the planet and you have to give it back."



The layers of a solar panel

The layers of a solar panel.

1: Aluminum frame

2: Low-reflective glass

3 & 5: Ethylene and Vinyl Acetate (EVA) (Enclosing material)

4: Solar cells

6: Tedlar — Electrical insulation and back protector of panel.

Source: Centennial Solar



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