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Trend towards alternative energy.

Rising utility prices are driving more people to seek energy options

California blackouts, Alberta's energy deregulation woes and wide-spread fears over Ontario's push to an open market are persuading more and more consumers to consider alternative sources of power.

The renewed public interest in solar and wind-generating systems has kept: Laurence McKay of Northern Lights Energy Systems Ltd. on the road for countless hours this spring to service a steadily growing clientele.

"You're lucky you caught me today," says McKay during an interview. Together with his wife Diena, McKay runs a small company from his home near Richards Landing on St. Joseph's Island, about a 45-minute drive east of Sault Ste. Marie.

McKay is a full-service dealer, designer and installer of solar, wind and micro hydro-turbine systems geared mainly to the cottage industry in the Algoma and Sudbury districts. He is also a northern distributor of Kyocera solar modules, Southwest Wind Power generating systems and Trace Engineering inverters.

Solar and wind power systems are popularly used by cottagers in remote locations unable to access the utility grid. But McKay senses a growing sentiment in the last few years amongst homeowners, tourist lodge operators and businesses faced with rising electricity, oil and natural gas bills. They too are seeking energy options.

"I'm getting more and more people that have the opportunity to hook up to the utility, but choose not to," he says. "It's one little bit of freedom that you can actually choose .to do. You can't avoid taxes, but there are a few options to get out from under the control of the utility."

Though he's been fielding a number of calls about his systems, McKay says few people realize how much energy they actually consume in their home.

"Installing a typical home system is equal to the purchase of a new car. Depending on what kind of appliances you run and how often you run them, it will drive the cost up or down.

"Someone who's frugal will be able to run equal to the cost of an economy car. On the other hand, if you constantly run the dish washer and a big-screen TV, you could be talking the price of a sport utility vehicle."

When meeting with clients to design electrical or hot-water heating systems, McKay takes into consideration their lifestyle choices, budget, personal preferences and appliance choices.

But once the system is installed there's only the follow-up cost in scheduled maintenance and battery replacement, which typically can be five to 15 years depending upon the quality of the battery purchased.

McKay started down the road toward energy independence in the 1970s during the days of the Arab oil embargo. As the father of a young family, with a tight budget and the public utility threatening to cut off their power in the middle of the winter, McKay realized how little security he had, should he fall ill or be injured on the job.

The former auto mechanic who sold battery and charging systems signed up for some courses offered by the Canadian Solar Industries Association (CSIA) and launched the business as a part-time venture in 1986.

Today their full-time home business is totally off grid, running on a combination of solar and wind power.

His firm recently won a contract in the CSIA's Canada-wide competition by producing a mobile demonstration unit to display photovoltaic technology, or what's commonly known as solar electricity.

The unit, which fits in a trailer 10 feet long and six-and-a-half feet wide can power an average-sized three-bedroom home for 24 to 48 hours. It is being displayed at the Kortwright Centre, a conservation area near Toronto, and will be used as a marketing tool for the association to promote the solar energy industry.

He believes the prototype has consumer possibilities for cottagers or as an emergency backup power supply, but he's still testing the market for it.

With his business growing by about 20 per cent each year, McKay finds the pressure to hire an employee or two is enormous. His client base numbers "in the hundreds," stretching from the Sault to Sudbury and as far north as White River.

"We need trained people, but to personally teach someone takes a lot of my energy away. We're trying to decide what to do. It's also very seasonal business, and it's difficult to hold onto someone once you train them."

McKay maintains a hectic warm-weather schedule going full out, especially during the spring months. During the winter months he works on experimental projects such as a solar tracker, a device which positions a solar array to continuously point at the sun.

But trying to predict where the Canadian energy market is going is tough, he says.

The solar energy industry is growing by leaps and bounds in the United States, where there is a shortage of large solar modules.

"They're just shovelling them into California," McKay says.

"Energy costs are still relatively low compared to where I think they're going to be down the road. We're nearing the end of cheap oil, prices are beginning to climb and everything I'm reading (in independent trade journals) indicates power is going up in a big way.

"And if energy costs continue to go up, that's going to drive people to look for alternatives."
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Ross, Ian
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1CONT
Date:Jun 1, 2001
Words:879
Previous Article:Utilities gear up to be market-ready by fall.
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