Solar Roof Project to Light Up Power Grid

Victoria firm heads to Toronto for CNE project

Thursday, January 19, 2006

A Victoria company is hoping a $1-million solar roof project in Toronto will take it to new heights in the real estate industry.

This spring, Carmanah Technologies Corp. will manufacture and install a solar electrical system atop the Horse Palace on the Canadian National Exhibition grounds as part of a one-year pilot project. The system, which will be tied to Ontario's electricity grid, will cover 15,000 sq. ft. and generate enough power for 15 homes per year.

"It's the largest solar-power installation in Canada, so we think it's a showcase, both nationally and internationally, of what we can do in terms of products and services," says Matthew Watson, Carmanah's chief operating officer.

The system, which combines solar modules and a racking system, is expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 94.7 tonnes per year. Watson hopes the system will help Carmanah become the "Persian Gulf of clean solar energy."

He was referring to the fact the Middle East region now provides much of the world's oil supply.

The output from the solar roof system lasts 35 to 45 days before it needs to be recharged through a battery. The technology is self-adjusting to compensate for rainy weather, and no backup power system is required.

The City of Toronto, which operates Exhibition Place, has committed to a sustainable-energy program, and Carmanah hopes to be involved in future programs there. The company is also hoping to capitalize in markets where governments provide subsidies to consumers and producers of alternative forms of electricity.

Watson expects the movement toward LEED-certified buildings across Canada and demand for alternative forms of energy will fuel demand. He expects industrial applications to drive most of the early activity but also predicts strong growth in the residential sector.

The Horse Palace contract was inked after Carmanah merged with Soltek Powersource Ltd., which specialized in solar power systems.

Until now, nine-year-old Carmanah, which trades publicly on the junior TSX Venture Exchange and hopes to move up to the Toronto Stock Exchange, has been known largely as a solar-lighting systems provider. In B.C. and Ontario, the company provides lighting at bus shelters for Viacom through a partnership with JC Decaux, an Australian-based outdoor advertising company.

But Carmanah CEO Art Aylesworth says he will take a wait-and-learn approach over the next two years when it comes to developing projects that tie into electricity grids. To this point, he says, the company has thrived by providing stand-alone lighting and power systems for oil and gas facilities.

In other words, it has sold technologies rather than commodities such as solar panels.

"If everyone is flogging (solar-power roofing systems) and just trying to find ways to make them cheaper, then we don't want to do it at all," says Aylesworth.

He adds he would rather provide value through technologies rather than processes, and wants to make sure Carmanah can do things quite differently from its competitors before the company jumps into the solar power pool with both feet.

"The economics are not black and white," says Aylesworth. "They're definitely trending right, but they're not black and white, considering that we're changing the direction of our business."

Carmanah is still actively exploring other opportunities. The firm is developing a proposal with the federal government to install solar roofs on Canadian government buildings, such as embassies, around the world.

Aylesworth says the company is also quite active in California, where it hopes to provide solar power systems to both industrial buildings and homes. Carmanah has hired a project engineer away from Shell Solar USA for that purpose, and will hire others to help it become more knowledgeable about the solar power market.

"We'd like to do more in B.C.," says Aylesworth, adding there have not been any major solar roof projects developed in the province. "Our business looks for places where they can't get power. We have an abundance of power in Canada, so our driver is environmental or economic."

A decade ago, only the true environmentalists pursued solar power projects because the technology was too expensive. But now, as a result of the Kyoto accord and increased demand for alternative energy, he says his company is in a business climate that's "just hopping."

The future of solar roofs will evolve as economies of scale emerge, he adds. As the costs of solar panels drop, the demand for solar power will increase.

Aylesworth compares the increased competition his company faces to a high jumper who learned how to jump higher and higher - while the bar was placed lower and lower.

(Monte Stewart can be reached at monte@businessedge.ca)