It’s a 10-storey office building downtown with a wall of windows on the north side and an intriguing architectural design on the south. But the southern wall of The Edge wasn’t just designed with aesthetics in mind; architect Gene Dub was considering the environment. It’s made up of 450 vertical solar panels, converting the sun’s rays into energy through a design tailored specifically to our northern climate.
And it’s one of the largest vertical solar walls in a Canadian downtown area, capable of powering the equivalent of about 24 houses. Dub hoped the sun would completely power the office building – he made it to 80 per cent. But he used other design features, including the north-facing windows, with the goal of further decreasing energy needed from the grid.
“At a northern latitude, the sun is pretty acute. That’s why vertical solar panels make sense in a northern climate,” says Dub. In southern climates, he explains, the sun is always directly above, making horizontal panels more efficient. But here, snow often covers a building’s roof, and the lower light makes horizontal installations less efficient during the colder months.
Installing vertical panels in a downtown area surrounded by high rises seems counterintuitive, since the sun needs a clear path. Dub knew the risks but, in this case, it was something he had direct control over. The main concern would be the building right to the south of The Edge; but it was also designed by Dub, was low enough that it didn’t obstruct the solar panels, and built to last.
David Vonesch, COO of SkyFire Energy, the company who installed the solar panelling, says bylaws with height restrictions can also protect solar panel installations; but the trouble is that bylaw decisions can change. “It could be an ongoing challenge. But there are certain sites where there are parks or rivers or on a hill where you should never lose that southern exposure or there is less risk,” says Vonesch.
Vertical installations are still relatively rare due to the amount of resources required and high costs initially involved, says Vonesch. Two workers installed The Edge’s system while hanging from a swing stage – basically the equivalent of a window-washing device – attaching panels over about four months.
While the initial cost may still be high, solar power in general is rapidly becoming more affordable, says Vonesch. “Systems we do today are probably about 50 per cent of the system costs we were quoting five years ago,” he says. But the biggest benefit, cost wise, is that these systems can often pay for themselves quickly. Dub believes the panels will save about $80,000 a year, meaning within five years the project will have paid for itself.