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Drake Landing, a solar energy community south of Calgary, loses its sizzle as system starts to fail

Drake Landing in Okotoks, Alta., includes 52 single-family homes that are part of a solar district energy community.  (Monty Kruger/CBC - image credit)
Drake Landing in Okotoks, Alta., includes 52 single-family homes that are part of a solar district energy community. (Monty Kruger/CBC - image credit)

Drake Landing, once the leading solar heating community of its kind in North America, may have to rely on fossil fuels as the aging system is breaking down and may be too expensive or impossible to fix.

The 52 homeowners in the small, tight-knit community in Okotoks, south of Calgary, at one point welcomed guests from around the world to show off the groundbreaking technology. The international visitors wanted to see first-hand how energy from the hot summer sun could be collected and stored and then released in a harsh Canadian winter to heat the community's houses.

By all accounts, Drake Landing, established in 2006, exceeded the expectations and objectives set by the project's financial backers — which included the provincial and federal governments.

Showcase a large-scale, seasonal, solar storage system capable of supplying over 90 per cent of the space heating requirements in a residential community? Check.

Reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional houses? Check.

Create a model that could represent the future of sustainable residential heating systems? Check.

Win multiple national and international building, environment and sustainability awards? Check. Check.

But now, the system is starting to fail, and it could be decommissioned — it's one outcome the community faces.

System could be decommissioned

ATCO's Tim Corboy is a spokesperson for the Drake Landing Company, which runs the community and is an equal partnership of ATCO, the Town of Okotoks, homebuilder Sterling Homes and property developer Anthem United.

He declined an interview request but responded via email to a number of questions.

Corboy said the company has been working hard over the past year and a half to find "affordable and reliable solutions to the growing system performance issues." He said this includes trying to find parts and experts to service the 20-year-old technology.

He said the residents' health, safety and comfort "has always been and will continue to be the primary driver in all considerations and decisions." He said any decision will be communicated to the residents first.

Corboy said the options include:

  • New communal energy system.

  • Individual systems.

  • New solar technology.

  • Individual heat exchangers.

  • Installation of forced air natural gas furnaces.

  • Decommission the communal solar heating system.

Corboy said decommissioning would not mean the project was a failure.

"It's important to note that we do not see this project as a failure at all. At the time, this system was revolutionary and caught attention from around the world. Much has been learned because of this community," he said.

It's disappointing for some of the owners who expected to get at least 25-30 years out of the groundbreaking system.

"I just thought it was a really good plan, something that I thought would be long-lasting," said Wayne Bonnar, who was standing outside the two-storey house he purchased in 2017.

Monty Kruger/CBC
Monty Kruger/CBC

The 52 homes range in size from about 1,500 square feet to almost 1,700 square feet. They have higher insulation values, an air-tight building envelope and energy efficient windows.

Each home has a stand-alone solar hot water heater with a conventional, high-efficiency, natural gas water heater as a backup.

"It was very successful," said Jeff Ivan, one of Bonnar's neighbours.

Monty Kruger/CBC
Monty Kruger/CBC

Ivan, who is an original owner and runs the community's social media page, says many of the system's components were built specifically for Drake Landing, so finding replacement parts is difficult, if not impossible.

The homeowners were first warned about system failures last fall.

Groundbreaking, global-leading 

Along with the homes, the $14.6-million project includes the "energy centre," which sits next to 144 underground, thermal energy storage bore holes dug 37 metres deep. The holes are underneath a small green space in the community. That's where the solar energy is stored during the summer and then released in the winter to heat the homes via a community energy network. This kind of setup is often referred to as a district heating system.

Detached garages at the back of each house are connected by a continuous roof where 800 solar heat collectors are located.

The project received $3.4 million from the federal and provincial governments and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

Along with funding for the project, Natural Resources Canada (NRC) provided technical support on the system's design and installation.

It says the project was a success and, in fact, it was the first system in the world to achieve more than 90 per cent of the homes' required space heating — even reaching 100 per cent in 2015. It's unlikely that NRC will be involved in any type of refresh or refurbishment of the system. It said in an email to CBC News that it supported the project in its research, development and demonstration stages — not when it reaches the end of its life cycle.

Monty Kruger/CBC
Monty Kruger/CBC

It was well-known among the owners that the system put in place in Okotoks was groundbreaking — that it had the potential to represent the future of sustainable residential heating.

But, there was uncertainty — and a backup plan.

Residents were told that if the system failed, their homes would be converted to natural gas.

Pulling the plug on solar heat

According to Bonnar, some of his neighbours have already pulled the plug on using the sun's energy to heat their homes and have opted for natural gas furnaces.

"Things are starting to deteriorate a little bit," he said.

He hopes the company won't give up on renewable energy as a heat source.

"It would be nice if they could do something more in line with non-fossil fuels, another solar system to replace it. But I would imagine that means removing everything. The controls probably wouldn't be compatible to another more up-to-date, modern solar panel system"

Ivan agrees.

"Right now, we don't know a clear path regarding that. We have asked that they look at green energy, whether it be a heat pump with a natural gas backup — that would be a preferred type of system," he said.

High Performing Buildings
High Performing Buildings

So Bonnar and Ivan and the 50 other owners now wait.

In his email, Corboy said a final decision has not been made.

"It is the board's intention to share it with the community as soon as possible, and particularly before next winter," he said.

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at bryan.labby@cbc.ca or on X at @CBCBryan.