RRU students infuse data into solar study

July 6, 2011
Amy Dove

Royal Roads University students are shining a light on solar technology.

Through a partnership with the City of Colwood, students are researching the value of solar thermal heating systems. Funded by a $3.9-million federal grant, Solar Colwood will bring solar hot water heating technology into 1,000 homes and businesses over three years among other initiatives. What that means in energy savings is for Royal Roads to find out.

The project is bringing real-world experience to students in return for credible research for the City, said Nancy Wilkin, director of the RRU Office of Sustainability. For the residents and RRU, the work strengthens the value of communities collaborating with universities in their backyards, she added.

It's a partnership the City of Colwood is grateful to have. The work stems from a 2009 memorandum of understanding to allow RRU students to work on City projects as the basis of their major research projects.

"Our partnership with Royal Roads University is an integral and valuable part of the Solar Colwood program," said Colwood Coun. Judith Cullington. "Having so many bright minds in the midst of our community means that we can keep up to date on best practices, disseminate the results to the world, and gather new information to help the program and our residents."

Two teams of five Bachelor of Environmental Science students are working on projects to support the value of solar power. One team is developing a baseline monitoring system to record energy savings and monitor the impacts of the project on greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, economic spin-offs and the social acceptance of clean energy concepts.

For Jordan Kummerfield, one of the students on the project, it's satisfying to contribute to a real project. A lot of the work at the bachelor program level is hypothetical or theoretical, he said, but this work is actually going to help the City of Colwood promote its goals.

"Our hope is (our work is) going to be a tool kit that other projects can use as a jumping off point to start their own assessment of energy use and clean energy projects," he said.

The project is a great learning experience, he said, because it draws upon a lot of disciplines including science, communications and marketing. The team, all of whom are new to solar energy, used provincial data to determine average energy consumption rates and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions for Colwood residents. Specific data for the city is not available, making it challenging to account for specifics such as number of residents per household, energy use habits and other factors, he said. What they did determine was that approximately 24 per cent of household energy consumption goes toward heating hot water.

The team started their work in January and has submitted the first draft of its working report to RRU. Over the next month revisions will be made for the final draft and final research questions laid to rest. That includes how to best promote their findings to a wide audience of residents, government bodies and academics, Kummerfield said.

The second team is analyzing the lifecycle of solar thermal technology. Energy and material inputs, as well as the environmental impact of production, use and disposal of the product will be examined.

The team did their research on a solar hot water heating system, which uses solar panels to collect energy from the sun to pre-heat hot water in the home. The system doesn't bring the water up to standard hot water temperatures for use, but by pre-heating it the idea is residents can save money on their energy bills, said student Jari Eikenaar.

Lifecycle analysis is tricky because you need a very detailed list of all the materials within the system, and all of those materials need to be individually evaluated for their lifecycle as well, Eikenaar said. The biggest challenge came in collecting manufacturer's information on all the components.

The project has been a great learning experience and helped him hone his editing skills, he said. Eikenaar is responsible for much of the editing in the report and ensuring it is consistent between the five team member's writing styles.

The final report is due in three weeks, with final presentations at the end of August. The end result for the City of Colwood includes a benefit cost analysis to help residents decide if solar hot water heating systems are worth the investment for them, Eikenaar said. That analysis will include the payback period on investment and other economical factors.

"This project is going to help other communities who are thinking about solar," Wilkin said. "It's going to help them communicate with their citizens the actual savings from using solar hot water. This information is just so meaningful."

To learn more about Solar Colwood go to www.solarcolwood.ca.