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Justice Institute takes on green energy

Justice Institute of B.C., Chilliwack, solar panels
Melanie Tadla with the Justice Institute

Instead of power lines, the Justice Institute of B.C. is heating its water the natural way.

Through sun energy.

The Justice Institute, a training facility for first responders, recently had 14 solar panels installed at the Chilliwack campus to provide hot water for showers, sinks and laundry machines in the student residence.

"We thought it would be a great go-green initiative," said Richard Epp, JIBC director of facilities.

According to SolarBC, a program of the B.C. Sustainable Energy Association, water is the second largest demand on energy in homes representing about 30 per cent of total energy use – mostly acquired through hydroelectric dams, coal-fired power plants, and underwater electrical cables.

By using solar panels, energy efficiency is increased and greenhouse gases decreased.

The dark-purple, almost black-coloured panels, which are nearly eight-feet tall – almost half a foot taller than basketball star Yau Ming – and three and a half feet wide are located on the south side of the Justice Institute's student residence and directly face the sun for optimal performance.

The panels act as a magnet for the sun, capturing its light and heat energy  and converting it into a heating agent for domestic water.

The system is a closed-loop system where glycol, a non-toxic antifreeze solution, and distilled water run through the panels over a double-walled heat exchanger and are then stored in solar hot water tanks before being pumped through the domestic water piping system.

Depending on the sun, the solar panels can get as hot as 80 degrees Celsius.

"That's energy from the sun where we actually have enough heat in our planet to receive this heat for free," said Roger Huber, CEO of Swiss Solar Tech, the company that installed the panels.

Harnessing solar energy isn't new. While solar panels were first commercialized in the mid 1950s, people have been using solar power in various forms for over 100 years. Globally, more than 29 million homes use solar power for hot water and heating.

Europe leads the way.

"When you go to Europe, 60 to 70 per cent of any household today has solar panels on the roof," said Huber.

"Europe has much higher energy costs, about two to three times higher, which does make a difference" when choosing to go solar.

Energy costs in B.C. are still fairly low, but gradually that's changing. According to the British Columbia Utility Commission, natural gas prices have increased an average of 12 per cent per year since 1998.

"Ten years ago, people didn't know anything about solar," said Huber. "But now, more and more people and businesses are going solar ... in the last five years, we've definitely seen an increase in solar installations.

"It's free energy."

At the Justice Institute, the solar panels compliment the boiler system. When it's overcast and grey out, the boiler system does the work. But when the sun is shining, the solar panels take over, producing enough heat to accommodate up to 150 students showering every day and doing laundry at least twice a week.

"We're going to get the most use out of those panels in the summer months," said Epp.

Which is perfect for the Chilliwack campus. The Department of National Defense program is a six-month program, with classes running through the summer months.

"If you have a campus that's on a semester system, it wouldn't make sense because you've got a lot of sun creating a lot of hot water, but very little usage," said Epp. "That's why we thought it would make the most sense to have the panels at our Chilliwack campus – the students are there for six months, they don't go home in the summer."

Because the panels are still fairly new, the Justice Institute doesn't yet have reports on cost savings. Huber estimates approximately $700 to $800 a year – $96,000 in 10 years.

"Once it's paid off, it's free heat," said Huber.

The solar panels cost $70,000 to install. The Justice Institute received $49,000 from the Public Sector Energy Conservation Agreement, $10,400 from Fortis BC, $7,000 from the JIBC Foundation, and $7,000 from the Justice Institute to install the panels..

Solar panels can last anywhere from 20 to 40 years.

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