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Couple's home demonstrates the potential of renewable energy.

In the middle of winter during the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s Laurence McKay was turned against the hydro system.

Late in paying a bill, the father of two was told, "Pay your bill or we will cut you off." To make matters worse, every time the wind blew his power went off.

After watching a television program on the California wind fields, McKay and his wife decided to cut themselves off hydro for good. They built a house on their St. Joseph Island property that needed no hydro lines.

A windmill atop a 75-foot tower and two 60-watt solar panels power their lights, an energy-efficient refrigerator, small appliances, a water pump and fans for an underground air-exchange heating system. Solar energy provides the home with hot water.

McKay said his family wanted a new house, but their principal motivation was to demonstrate the potential of renewable energy. The house has since become an advertisement for the family business, Northern Lights Energy Systems, which designs, distributes and installs wind and photovoltaic (PV) systems.

PV systems, which convert light into electricity, were developed in the 1950s and are used primarily to provide electricity to remote areas. They are also used to power Coast Guard early warning stations, weather stations, electric fencing and water pumps for entire villages in the Third World.

McKay's customers are located from St. Joseph Island to Chapleau. Many need electricity in remote locations which are not serviced by the hydro grid.

The owner of a farmhouse on Desbarats Lake Road, for example, faced a $60,000 charge for extending the hydro line to supply his home with electricity. He chose instead to install a four-panel PV system at a cost of $6,000. The system powers a light in every room, and 12-volt appliances such as a toaster, television and cooler. He heats with wood and cooks on a propane range.

McKay also equipped Reinhardt's Glass, a business outside Elliot Lake, with photovoltaics.

"Reinhardt spent $80 a week on generator gas and wore out a generator every other year," recalls McKay. "We put in a system in July and they burned no gas until winter, and then it was just a five-gallon-per-week supplement."

Now Reinhardt's Glass plans to install an energy-efficient freezer which can be powered with the addition of extra solar panels.

Northern Lights has sold renewable energy systems to several cottage owners, as well. Many cottages become homes when people discover the feasibility of wind and solar energy.

This year McKay intends to quit his job as an auto mechanic in Sault Ste. Marie in order to pursue the renewable energy business on a full-time basis.

"This is our year of transition, he says. "It's a big step, but there is too much to do this part time."

In 1991 Northern Lights had sales of $50,000. This year McKay expects sales of $250,000.

"A lot of people are watching. For every one we've sold, there are three or four more that are watching. There are a lot of doubters out there," he says.

Renewable energy users such as McKay charge banks of batteries to store electricity and use backup gasoline generators when reserves run low. McKay's 60 two-volt batteries charge as long as the wind is blowing. They store seven days' worth of electricity. July is the only month when the wind drops off so much that he must use the gasoline generator.

McKay would like to see the need for batteries eliminated by connecting renewable energy systems such as his to the hydro grid.

Power from the grid would supply his house when the renewable energy generator fails to meet demands. When the generator's output exceeds household needs, the excess could be fed back into the grid.

Ron Salt, manager of customer energy services for Ontario Hydro in Sault Ste. Marie, says he is not aware of any such parallel generation systems in the Algoma district.

"The safety aspect would have to be first and foremost. Outside of that, I see no problem," he says. "It is very rare to see someone with a (renewable energy) generator."

However, Ontario Hydro and local utilities may start to see more demand for parallel generation in the near future.

The Kortright Centre for Conservation, near Metropolitan Toronto, operates a cottage entirely with renewable energy. Wind- and solar-powered generators supply electricity for the lights, a water pump and the latest in energy-efficient appliances. The cottage is connected to the local electricity grid.

The Kortright project is sponsored by the provincial Ministry of Energy and Ontario Hydro. Alex Waters, Kortright's energy coordinator, says the cottage is a demonstration project used to educate the public and electrical utilities staff about the capability of renewable energy.

Hydro inspectors are trained at the centre in standards for remote-generation systems. The federal and provincial governments are presently developing electrical codes for PV and wind-generation systems.

According to McKay, an appeal of renewable energy is "the ability to live 20 miles from the hydro line and not have to give everything up."

He credits growth in the field to improvements in the efficiency of electrical equipment such as inverters, which turn direct current (DC) battery power to alternating (AC) current.

When McKay started building his house in 1986 the best inverter he could afford was noisy and only 65-per-cent efficient. In recent years inverters have become affordable (less than $1,000 each), quiet, and nearly 95-per-cent efficient.

"The whole industry has completely changed in the past four years. I could do the same thing with half the equipment now," says McKay, of his house construction completed last year.

Other innovations that have helped bring renewable energy into the hands of consumers are energy-efficient appliances such as refrigerators that consume as little as 36 kilowatt hours per month and compact fluorescent light bulbs which burn less electricity than incandescent household lights.

Government agencies, including Ontario Hydro, are supporting energy conservation which, in turn, makes renewable energy more economical.

But direct subsidies are not available for the installation of wind and solar systems, partly because electricity is relatively inexpensive at present.

McKay recalls that when the government cut its subsidies for renewable energy installations in 1986, the number of dealers dropped remarkably. Other Northern Ontario distributors include Alternative Energy Supplies of Sudbury and Solarquip, also of St. Joseph Island.

However, McKay does not want the subsides re-instituted.

"That would lead to a boom-and-bust cycle," he explains.

Northern Lights distributes equipment purchased from suppliers in California, Arizona and Oklahoma. Shipments arrive at St. Joseph Island in two days via UPS or Manitoulin Transport.

There are relatively few Canadian manufacturers of renewable energy system components. Darentek of Ottawa and Silonex of Montreal manufacture photovoltaics.

Energy Mines and Resources Canada reports that Adecon Energy Systems, an Ontario firm, is installing 10 Canadian-designed machines at Canada's largest wind farm, to be established in southern Alberta.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Laurentian Business Publishing, Inc.
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Energy/Environment Report; Laurence McKay's Northern Lights Energy Systems
Author:Smith, Guy
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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