In the new age of anxiety — which we seem to be entering — institutions of higher education can be outposts of optimism, oases that push back against doomsday scenarios and help us face the future with a measure of hopefulness. Such is the case with a new renewable energy initiative at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.
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The school has nearly completed the Queen's Solar Education Centre, a project of its Solar Design Team, a gifted crew of engineering, business and marketing students who got their start creating futuristic solar-powered automobiles. In 2000, they set a Guinness world record for the longest "journey in a solar vehicle." By 2008, they had shifted to designing solar-powered homes and began work on the Solar Education Centre in 2014.
John Gao, the design team's marketing manager, tells me the centre — which resembles a small suburban home complete with shrubs and flower boxes out front — is "fully autonomous". It doesn't draw its electricity from the grid nor its water from the municipality. Instead, it provides water for drinking and showering by collecting rain, which it triple filters using UV lighting powered with solar panels. The latter also provide 220 watts of direct current for the refrigerator. Electric radiant-floor-heating keeps occupants warm in winter, without the dust created by forced-air systems. Composting toilets handle human waste. ("They don't stink!" says business manager Katie Yang.)
As its name suggests, the Queen's Solar Education Centre is a hub for education and research. Its staff regularly bring in school-age children for workshops on green technology and, in July and August, offer tours for summer-camp kids. Walking lightly on the planet, they learn, is entirely practical. Garrett Mallery, the design team's director, tells me, "It's eye-opening for them. They see that sustainable living is realistic; it's not just a dream or in the future. It's now." The students enjoy themselves at the centre, finding ways to connect renewable energy to their own experience. One youthful visitor asked, "If you take all the mini solar things in calculators and put them on your roof, will it work like a solar panel?" The centre calls forth young people's ingenuity and showcases their desire, even at an early age, to generate environmental solutions.
It also provides a laboratory for groups of masters and doctoral candidates who want to test theories about solar-based heating and cooling. Students Cameron, Elias, Kaldwell and Shen — under the supervision of associate professor Stephen Harrison — noted that roof-mounted photovoltaic panels (whose main purpose is electricity production) offer an attractive side benefit: they raise the temperature of air caught beneath them. The young scientists found a way to capture this air and use it to warm the building. Their exciting insight, which the centre helped them explore, is the realization that PV technology can serve a dual purpose, creating both power and heat.
The design team's final goal is widespread behaviour change. Mallery gives the example of plumbing: "Almost everyone in Canada uses clean water for toilets. But that's archaic. They should use grey water to reduce consumption — which is especially important given that climate change means more water shortages." If an overhaul of this magnitude feels daunting, the team suggests homeowners begin small. "There are lots of little things you can do in your house," Mallery explains. "For example, sealing your windows and using LED lights. And with the drop in solar prices, even putting up PV panels is now relatively easy."