An array of solar panels is set to go up at a former military base in Sydney, N.S., that now houses Pine Tree Park Estates, an affordable-living community run by the non-profit New Dawn Enterprises.
The solar garden will power all the homes and buildings on the site, cutting greenhouse gas emissions and making life even more affordable for residents.
New Dawn president Erika Shea said the 700-kilowatt project will cut people's energy costs by a third.
"It will make a big difference for the residents here," she said. "Their energy expenses will fall substantially and they'll be much more stable and predictable over time than they've been for the last decade."
The former radar base operated from 1954 to 1991 in Sydney's Whitney Pier neighbourhood. It includes 28 houses, a home for people with disabilities and a curling club.
All the buildings are being upgraded with proper insulation and are being retrofitted to convert them from oil heat to geothermal — or ground source — heating, with the power supplied by the solar garden.
New Dawn bought the property just after the turn of this century, but some of the soil around the homes was contaminated by home heating oil.
The federal government eventually agreed to remediate the land and compensate New Dawn and the residents.
It is now putting in $1.8 million for the solar garden.
"To have the ... next chapter of this property be one in which we are able to eliminate oil from the 80 acres is pretty meaningful for us," Shea said.
New Dawn plans to build more housing on site and there's room to expand the solar garden.
"We know that as we're building new affordable housing where we control for rents, if we can't control for energy costs, housing is still out of the reach of way too many members in our community," she said.
The Verschuren Centre for Sustainability in Energy and the Environment at Cape Breton University is overseeing the solar project installation.
Beth Mason, the centre's CEO, said the geothermal systems use electric heat pumps, allowing the community to become the province's first net-zero greenhouse gas emissions community.
"Half of our individual energy consumption is heat, particularly in a northern climate like this, and so you have to electrify that to be able to then [go] net zero," she said.
There are net-zero communities built from scratch elsewhere in Canada, but none that involve so much retrofitting of old buildings, Mason said.
"As a complete retro[fit] of something of this age, to go net zero is quite an obstacle and you know, quite an achievement," she said.
The solar array will feed electricity into the Nova Scotia Power grid when it's sunny and draw from the grid when it's not.
Because geothermal is a constant source of heat, the power grid is like a second backup after the solar array, Mason said.
"The electrical grid is probably the least reliable in that picture," she said.
The Verschuren Centre will also monitor the system and researchers will use the data to design and build other solar power systems.
Scientists will also be working on energy storage to provide another backup for the solar array, Mason said.
Federal funding announced
Funding for the solar garden was announced by Cape Breton Liberal MPs Mike Kelloway and Jaime Battiste, with the money coming from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency's Innovative Communities Fund and Environment and Climate Change Canada's Low Carbon Economy Challenge Partnerships.
Kelloway said the project will eliminate 14,300 tonnes of greenhouse gases, equivalent to taking about 4,400 cars off the road for a year.
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