There’s a new array of gleaming blue solar thermal panels on the roof of the University of Toronto’s Athletic Centre. The panels, which were switched on in January, will provide almost 25% of the Centre’s hot water needs throughout the year.  Even in the winter sun it can cause the water temperature to increase to 45 degrees in just one hour.

Ashley Taylor, a sustainability officer with UofT’s Sustainability Office (SO), was responsible for first planning out the project for an undergraduate engineering course in 2006. The proposal sat on the shelf for a few years until government incentives finally convinced the University to move.

“It suddenly made sense,” she says. “The payback period shrank from 25 years to around 15 years.” The economic playing field is changing for green entrepreneurs across the country. Combinations of federal and provincial incentives allow payback periods for investments in green technology to be drastically shortened.
These incentives covered almost $170,000 of the $500,000 bill for the UofT project. The Athletic Centre stands to save $20,000-$25,000 per year on energy bills.

“The problem with these projects for homes used to be that the payback wasn’t there,” she says. Homeowners aren’t sure they’re going to be in the same house in 20 years, so they’re reluctant to commit to such energy-saving features. “In 20 years, the University is still going to be here, but for commercial and industrial buildings, the planning cycle is much shorter.” The new green energy incentives have changed all that.

The Sustainability Office has big plans for the rest of campus, including the continuation of their electricity and paper-saving initiatives. Their website has an excellent application where you can track the greenhouse gas emissions and energy use of all UofT buildings.

“We want to make the data and the results of our projects accessible to the students,” says Taylor. “We’re targeting on-going behaviour change.” The best way to do that is for people to see the energy they’re consuming. Taylor floats the idea of having interactive displays around the Athletic Centre so users can see how much energy is being provided by the solar panels.

“We want people to take ownership of sustainability.”

Joseph Wilson

Joseph was an education advisor at MaRS Discovery District. He writes on topics of science, culture and city issues for NOW Magazine, the Globe and Mail, Spacing and Yonge Street. He is the Executive Director of the Treehouse Group, dedicated to fostering innovation by hosting cross-disciplinary events. See more…