There are a lot of myths surrounding just what exactly is a solar community. We have one not too far away-- shocking isn't it? Drake Landing of Okotoks, Alberta was created four years ago as a pilot project by ATCO Gas and Sterling Homes to see if solar panels actually make your typical suburban home more efficient. The university's own Urban Calgary Students Association ventured out to Okotoks last Saturday to see it. The good news is that they've found a way to get water and electricity working together without getting electrocuted. The bad news is that it's still a typical suburban community. It all breaks down rather simply: every year this community uses a network of 800 solar thermal collectors on garage roofs to heat an anti-freeze-like glycol solution which gets channelled to 52 homes. This provides 90 per cent of required space heating energy for an average suburban home, cutting energy needs by 60 per cent. Drake landing has nearly one year left in its five-year pilot program.
Now I don't know if you've noticed this too, but Calgary is sinking under the weight of its thousands of boxy-looking, cheaply-built developments, most of which critics usually liken to utilitarian capitalist feces not seen since socialist housing projects. Of course, blame can not be consigned to developers alone, the issue here goes deeper than the widespread belief that these cookie cutter homes are poorly built, but the public attitude toward them alone reduces their appeal, efficiency and ultimately their design. Tom Howard, VP academic of UrbanCSA, outlined two fundamental issues of the bedroom suburb: "Many residents likely commute to Calgary for work, somewhat offsetting the positive aspects of the development. Furthermore, the community was and is not engaged in any sort of planning, design or governance process."
Urban studies student Desiree Geib commented, "It seems as though the houses themselves are not designed to take advantage of this new technology."
It seems to me that Calgarians want, whether vocally or on some unconscious level, to be involved in designing their own living arrangements. Instead, the amount of citizens who criticize suburban housing is roughly equal to the amount of Tim Hortons coffee cups tossed into the dead space of kitchen cabinets and poorly insulated ceilings, as if this were the only way to leave some lasting imprint in the city. And speaking of dead space, one that belongs in an Alberta record book is the distance between Drake Landing's solar thermal homes and Calgary which supports most of its occupants through work, social or economic needs. Not that UrbanCSA advocates this idea, but in the space we saw during the hour-long drive it took our bus to find this place, you could put enough solar panels to power the hundreds of health clubs and gyms people use to escape the monotony of an outdoor stroll or bike ride in the typical Calgary community. I would bet my recycled backpack that no one is riding a bike into downtown Calgary all the way from Okotoks every morning. An article titled "Calgary, as the dreamers saw it" released last week outlining the city as it "could have been," reintroduced Calgary's utopian plans from the dusty clutches of some old planners drawer onto the starving front page of the Calgary Herald. There was no mention of one very simple concept of what the city of the future should hopefully be-- closer.
We mustn't judge this community too harshly, for it is a large step forward for research on sustainability in North America. But for those members of UrbanCSA who travelled to Europe not eight short months ago, visiting cities that support thousands of homes on photovoltaic energy, Drake Landing and its technology was in no way surprising. Instead, our hearts were full of some cool remembered community in Freiburg, Germany where homes automatically sell excess energy into the grid and into the wallet of the relaxed occupant.