“‘Tomorrow Sunny’: The Rise and Fall of Solar Heating in Canada, Part 4”

Henry Trim

In the final part of this series on solar energy we will examine the unhappy results of solar advocates’ overreliance on optimistic simulations and the difficulty of commercializing economically marginal technology. Tragically for development of renewable energy, neither solar technology nor the energy market developed as projected.

Generous federal funding combined with the installation of solar collectors on government buildings set off an immediate boom in solar in 1979. The Canadian solar industry was almost non-existent when the government announced the program a year before. New solar heating companies quickly appeared and the few existing worked feverishly to expand. Although funds often seemed to arrive too slowly for the needs of these fledgling companies and government analysts complained about problems with companies’ paperwork, the program generated the interest in solar and the rapid expansion it hoped for.[1] This expansion, however, came with problems the WATSUN computer model did not predict.

The most serious problems were with the many new companies. The industry simply could not consistently produce and install high quality solar heating systems. Government purchasers and other early adopters experienced a wide range of problems. Some collectors worked, but were poorly oriented and missed out on valuable sunshine. Other collectors quickly corroded and stopped producing heat. Installations also damaged roofs causing leaks and requiring expensive repairs. The Institute of Man and Resources on PEI, a group dedicated to developing renewable energy, found that nearly every collector it tested suffered from problems ranging from corrosion to high heat loss. Disappointed, the Institute concluded that thick insulation and double paned windows would do more to keep your house warm in winter than a solar heater until the industry worked out its problems.[2]

This experience was widespread in the first years of the solar program. Although disappointing, it should not surprise anyone who has installed new software only to have their computer crash repeatedly until an update patched the problem. New or experimental technologies take time to get up and running. In the case of solar heating, these problems were exacerbated by the rapid emergence of the industry. Canada had only the tiniest solar heating industry before federal funding created a boom at the end of the 1970s. Most of the companies were small start ups with little experience constructing solar heaters or installing them. As with any new industry, years of failure would be required for the competent companies to establish themselves, develop successful technologies, and force the new industry to improve.

Unfortunately, the Canadian solar industry did not have that time. Government funds began to reach the industry in 1979 and the first units were installed through government contracts. By 1982 the more competent firms began to emerge and the technology had begun to improve, but not at the rate projected by WATSUN. Slow progress caused serious concerns among the government department’s overseeing the solar programs. They had approved these programs based primarily on a set of projections about solar technology’s development, which meant that program results needed to come close the projected outcomes or they risked being perceived as failures.

To make matters worse, the early 1980s saw oil prices plummet. This changed the energy market and removed the primary reason for funding solar. Government advisors soon decided that new investments had expanded global oil supply and low prices might be the last for some time. Further exacerbating solar heating’s diming outlook, the Trudeau government wanted to implement broad funding cuts in an effort to rein in inflation.

The Department of Energy, Mines, and Resources lost no time in launching a review of the federal solar program. In 1983 Jean Chretien, the new Minister of Energy, announced that the program would be wrapped up to save money. Chretien’s report concluded that the technology had not lived up to expectations and would not improve rapidly enough to compete with cheap oil.[3] This decision effectively killed the fledgling industry since it relied on government contracts available through the solar funds.

The disappointing results of Canada’s first attempt to jumpstart solar development highlight the difficulties of innovation, particularly the catch 22 of forecasting. In the hands of advocates, optimistic forecasts of technological development can generate interest in new or little used technologies. In the right political or economic circumstances these forecasts can drive substantial investment. But these projections also inflate expectations and set specific targets. In the case of solar heating, simulations set the technology up for failure. To expect a technology little known in Canada to mature and become a commercial success so rapidly was unrealistic even for something as simple as solar heaters.

That said, to simply blame the technology for its failure is too simplistic. If the Canadian government had continued to support solar heating, the technology may have improved to the point that it actually became commercially viable. The real question is how to decide when to abandon sunk costs and move onto something more promising. As difficult as this question is, it remains central to contemporary clean technology development. Money invested too soon in demonstration and commercialization cannot be used for research and development and it might undermine support for renewable energy if the hyped technology fails to deliver.

Today, a new Trudeau government has promised to address climate change and deliver green economic growth.[4] While sustainable development is profoundly important for Canada’s future, promises of a clean tech panacea must be met with pointed questions about the assumptions built into those optimistic projections of innovation and commercialization. To forgo such questions in a rush to take action on the pressing issue of climate change risks repeating the mistakes of the 1970s that damaged the credibility renewable energy for decades.

Hank Trim is a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This is the third in a four part monthly series on the rise and fall of solar energy in the 1970s and 1980s. Click here to read parts onetwo and three.


 

[1] Energy, Mines, and Resources, “Discussion paper 5-78: Implementation of Solar Heating,” Efficiency and Alternative Energy Branch, Renewable Energy Division, Box 1, EMR Files, LAC.

[2] For an excellent discussion of the Institute of Man and Resources and its work see Alan MacEachern, An Environmental Fable: The Institute of Man and Resources (Charlottetown: Island Studies Press, 2003).

[3] Memo to Cabinet, From Minister of EMR, Re: Solar Policy Review, March 14, 1983, Vol.1-7, File 4, Public Works Canada: Solar Energy Program, Romeo Leblanc Fonds, LAC.

[4] The Liberal government’s plan for green economic development can be found here: https://www.liberal.ca/files/2015/08/A-new-plan-for-Canadas-environment-and-economy.pdf

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