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Couple's solar-powered home aims to challenge Manitoba Hydro

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Bev Eert has a few plants growing in the unfinished house. There are lots of south-east facing windows looking out over their large lot on the Assiniboine River.

NEAR ROSSENDALE -- It wasn't a tough choice for Will and Bev Eert.

Pay Manitoba Hydro more than $60,000 to extend electrical service to their new home in the Assiniboine River Valley, or pay about $30,000 to go solar.

Two years later, the retired couple is about eight months away from moving into the timber-framed house southwest of Portage la Prairie they designed and built mostly by themselves.

When they do, it will be entirely powered by the sun and two arrays of 24 solar panels outside their front lawn. They face south, angled to capture the most sun. They produce 4.4 kilowatts (kW) for about 24 kilowatt hours. The Eerts only use about five in the temporary house, studio and workshop they live in while the new house gets finished.

A wood stove in the new house will provide extra heat on colder days if needed, but Bev and Will plan to do most of cooking on an electric range, supplied by a bank of batteries charged by the sun. Their new kitchen will also have a dishwasher and they're planning to install a washer and dryer.

"It's kind of fun making your own power," Will says as he and Bev guide a pair of visitors through the new house.

The couple, who moved here from British Columbia, are going solar for several reasons: To reduce their carbon footprint; to be self-sufficient without sacrificing comfort; and to tell Manitoba Hydro, and by extension the Selinger government, building massive hydro dams and transmission lines is not the cure-all for the province's growing energy needs.

States such as Minnesota and countries such as Germany are already doing it, but Manitoba Hydro has stated there is not enough sunlight during the winter to make solar power an efficient alternative to hydro -- and the proposed Keeyask and Conawapa generating stations.

Hydro has made its position clear at the ongoing Public Utilities Board hearing that's examining the need for the dams.

One reason the married couple of 13 years say they moved to the province was because of the amount of sun southern Manitoba gets compared with other regions of Canada.

They say there is so much sunlight the excess power produced by the black solar panels outside will be "dumped" into the new home's radiant floor for heating.

The house is partially built into the side of a hill and well-insulated to a R-30 value. Its large windows also face south, taking advantage of daylight hours and overlooking the Assiniboine River and wooded escarpment of Hird Flats.

"The house is designed to be passive solar, so normally it's 20 degrees in here, so this house doesn't need much heat," Bev says. An architect, she designed energy-efficient timber-framed homes in B.C.

The Eerts admit they're an exception to typical homeowners who've become accustomed to relatively low utility bills and generally unfazed by their electricity and natural-gas consumption.

"We're environmentalists," Bev says. "This is our dream. We're doing it so we can be entirely self-sufficient and living a lifestyle that anybody would like to live. This is more for me a demonstration project. Manitoba has largely not figured out there's a huge solar resource."

"It's the right thing to do," Will, a former pulp and paper mill worker, adds. "In the last three or four years, solar has gotten so much better, it's incredible. People don't need to know anything if they want to have solar and save money on their electricity."

In fact, they don't even need solar panels. They can just tap into a community-owned solar garden, just like what's happening near Minneapolis, where a Wisconsin-based solar developer has proposed a one-acre field of 4,000 panels that would generate a maximum flow of one megawatt of electricity, enough to power 140 typical homes. In Minnesota, under the Minnesota Solar Challenge program approved last year, independent businesses and groups may set up arrays of solar panels and then sell the power to local customers.

In 2013, Minnesota installed six megawatts of solar electric capacity, ranking it 25th nationally. Recently, the state's Public Utilities Commission established a method for utilities to calculate how much to pay for electricity generated by the ever-increasing number of rooftop solar systems.

In Manitoba, Hydro only offers loans to people looking to install a solar water-heating system. The Crown utility says the widespread use of solar energy to generate electricity is not yet practical when compared to hydroelectric generation. Manitoba Hydro did support the installation of a 12.7-kW solar wall at the Red River College downtown campus in January 2003.

In a written briefing to the PUB on emerging energy technology, it does say the potential for development of solar power in southern Manitoba is good -- even in winter.

"The southern portions of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba have the best solar resources in Canada," it says.

"Cities such as Brandon or Winnipeg that are located within good solar resources could have the photovoltaic farm located near their urban load centres. The solar photovoltaic rooftop potential of Winnipeg has been estimated to be greater than 3,000 megawatts."

That's the equivalent of about two Conawapas.

West of Winnipeg, nestled on a hill overlooking the Assiniboine, the Eerts already know this. They know the sun that shines over the Twin Cities is the same one that shines on their front-yard solar array. It might be just a tad less intense on some winter days, but just a tad.

"If Hydro were just to take their blinkers off and say, 'We could work with the sun,' it could be a big advantage to them," Will says. "The sun will keep shining, and for greenhouse-gas emissions, it's much more friendly than dams."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 28, 2014 A4

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