Are solar panels on Western’s horizon?

It sounds like such a bright, shiny idea. But it has a dark – or at least shaded – side.

With 748,500 square metres of building area on campus, The University of Western Ontario is considering turning rooftops and walls into solar charging stations. But in order to do so, the university will need to invest in reinforcing the current infrastructure first.

Roy Langille, Facilities Management associate vice-president, and his division have evaluated rooftops campuswide and determined “none of them are properly equipped to support solar units.”

The cost of retrofitting a roof is approximately $30 per square foot, and the estimated cost to improve structural support would be about $70 per square foot. In other words, a 40,000 square foot roof could cost approximately $4 million to prepare it properly for a solar installation, says Langille, noting each building would have to be considered individually.

Another consideration is roof maintenance. Repairing and replacing a roof with a photovoltaic system, for example, could have added overhead costs if the repairs require the removal of the solar panels.

With so many factors, extensive feasibility studies will need to be conducted in order to better understand current roofing load capacities, conditions and waterproofing needs, Langille says.

“Moving forward,” he assures, “all new roofs built will be built to withstand both snow loads and solar opportunities.”

Facilities Management is looking at other alternatives, such as solar parking lots, walls and lights, solar-powered charging stations for electric vehicles, and the installation of solar signage/screens throughout campus.


Spend now, save later

But cashing in on green energy could mean money back for the university.

The Ontario government, in conjunction with the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) has implemented the Feed-In-Tariff (FIT) program. This incentive program involves long-term contract with the OPA allowing interested clients the ability to generate green energy and sell it back for a guaranteed price.

“Currently, the prices quoted to sell back are very attractive making for a great return on investment,” Langille says.

The OPA quotes energy sell-back prices based on whether the solar panels are installed on a roof or ground mounted and the size of the system. For instance, based on the OPA rules, if the university installed a 230kW system on a roof, it would be able to sell energy back at a price of about $.71/kWh.

“It’s a great method for organizations to implement otherwise costly renewable energy projects,” he says. “The down side is that OPA insists on receiving any carbon credits associated with the energy reduction.”

The university would have to sign a 20-year contract.

There is currently no value for these credits, which are tradable certificates representing the right to emit one tone of GHG. But these may have monetary value in the future, making the university cautious about signing such an agreement. 


We all shine on

The Claudette-MacKay-Lassonde Pavilion, otherwise known as the Green Building, is the only building on campus with solar panels. The two 1KW solar arrays provide the building with lighting, mainly in the lobby and lounge, and provide electricity to a professor’s lab in the building.

The cost of the panel on the Green Building was about $15,000, not including the preparation work and installation costs.

Algoma University in Sault St. Marie, St. Lawrence College (Kingston and Brockville campuses) and Carleton University have committed to going solar, leading the pack of post-secondary institutions adopting solar energy.

“If all works out in our favour, we would imagine that most solar installed at Western will go through the FIT Program and the energy created will be routed back in Ontario’s power grid,” Langille says. “It isn’t likely that we will directly draw from the solar power we generate on campus.”

The University Community Centre (UCC) may become first test bed for installing solar panels.

The University Students’ Council (USC) established the Student Legacy Challenge with excess funds from the student refund following the London Transit strike in 2009. The money is to be used toward projects with lasting impact on the campus.

Last year, the USC, prompted by a submission from EnviroWestern, decided to examine installing two solar panels on or around the UCC. However, the USC pays occupancy fees to the university, so the project needed university support.

The initial proposal was to use $16,000 to install two panels on the UCC. The USC doesn’t pay for electricity – the university supplies it – but the visibility of solar panels would demonstrate the students’ support of green initiatives, says Marissa Joffre, vice-president campus issues.

“We won’t necessarily get any financial benefit from this project with (the university), but what we would have, certainly, is the students contributing toward something that they mark as a priority to the future student body,” Joffre says. “What we are hoping is if it goes well, the university will continue building these solar panels across campus.”

Facilities Management is covering the costs of a solar study for the USC. Initially, the proposed location was on the roof of the UCC, but a consulting firm hired for the project has eyes on the concrete beach as well.

“The high visibility in this area will ensure the solar will act as a showpiece for students, staff and visitors frequenting the area,” Langille says.

“The reason we have a problem encouraging students to recycle and participate in green initiatives on our campus is because they don’t see the long-term outcomes,” Joffre adds. “So when you have an initiative like this, where you know you are producing energy that is going to take away from our carbon footprint, it’s hard not to support that.”