A bird’s-eye photo of the newly occupied Beech House Condos in Toronto’s Upper Beaches reveals an unexpected feature.
Invisible from street level at Kingston Road and Beech Avenue, the patio awnings cascading down the six-storey building’s south-facing side are topped with solar panels that displace 1.2 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year by generating about 90,000 kWh of electricity.
The net-metered solar photovoltaic system developed by Toronto-based Alectric will power communal building features such as elevators, a smart garden irrigation system, a self-sorting garbage chute, and interior and exterior LED lighting when the sun is shining.
According to Alectric CEO Alan Morrissey, keeping up with residential demand is one of the most challenging aspects of the business. “We have seven or eight projects on the go with excavators digging the foundations as we speak,” Morrissey says.
Across the GTA, a growing number of condo buildings are being powered, heated and cooled using solar and geothermal technologies that draw on energy generated by the sun and earth, respectively.
According to Nicholas Gall, director of distributed energy resources at the Canadian Renewable Energy Association, recent interest in solar-powered condominiums has been “tremendous,” being driven, he says, “by people who are interested in reducing their carbon footprint. One of the things you’re increasingly seeing is integrating solar with onsite electric vehicle (EV) charging, which is going to become a standard amenity in the coming years.”
Alectric has already partnered with Toronto’s ChargeLab to deliver EV charging infrastructure to property developers. “A commitment to a sustainable lifestyle is a way for developers to differentiate themselves,” Gall adds.
At Tridel Corp.’s Aqualina at Bayside project, roof-mounted solar panels provide all the electricity needed for a penthouse suite dubbed the Net Zero Energy Dwelling (NetZED). Designed to showcase the sustainable technologies that led to Aqualina earning LEED platinum certification, NetZED’s excess solar-generated energy is traded with the rest of the building to offset the suite’s energy needs after sundown. (While solar energy can be stored in some cases, here the system lacks sufficient battery storage.)
Interest in solar-powered condos could grow even more quickly if proposed amendments to Ontario’s net metering regulations are passed. These would give condo developers and residents more options to generate renewable power for local use, with excess power being returned to the grid in exchange for credits. These credits would then be shared among participating accounts, with the community drawing power from the grid when there is insufficient local generation.
Geothermal heating and cooling, for its part, appears to have gained even more momentum than solar power, with the Ontario Geothermal Association estimating that the percentage of condos employing this type of heating has more than doubled to five per cent over the past five years.
Nova Ridge Development’s Manderley Condos is slated to join the club when it opens to residents in 2023. The Scarborough property’s Subterra Renewables geoexchange system will drill more than 70 metres under the 12-storey building’s foundations to draw heat and cooling from the ground. This will achieve energy savings of as much as 80 per cent, says Subterra CEO Lucie Andlauer. As at Beech House and Aqualina, a green roof will help control indoor temperatures by deflecting excess heat.
Then there’s the 17-storey Queen Ashbridges Condos at Queen Street East and Coxwell Avenue, which will combine a geothermal ground-source variable refrigerant flow (VRF) HVAC system with in-suite Energy Recovery Ventilation (ERV) that supplies fresh air to the 366 suites directly from the outdoors, reduces noise pollution and cooking odours by sealing units more thoroughly, and reduces energy use by redistributing warm and cool air as needed.
“The city is really encouraging a higher standard of sustainability, and with a project of this size we could entertain that kind of investment,” says Howard Cohen, a principal with project co-developer Context Development.
With the Toronto Green Standard on track to require new buildings to have close to zero carbon emissions by 2030, many developers are “working to get ahead of the curve,” Gall says, adding that plummeting prices for solar panels are allowing infrastructure costs to be offset by lower energy and maintenance bills much more quickly than in the past. According to the Heating Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Institute of Canada, this can happen in as little as three to five years for large buildings.
Should developers wish to avoid these up-front costs, third parties such as Toronto-based Diverso Energy and Mitrex will build and operate infrastructure, and charge service fees to condo owners. At the same time, solar and geothermal energy can free up square footage by eliminating conventional HVAC system components such as rooftop cooling towers, which can be replaced by penthouse suites, rooftop terraces and other amenities.
With the cost of residential electricity in Ontario projected to rise 52 per cent from 2017 to 2035, some exterior features are being adapted to gather solar energy. These building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) construction materials include exterior cladding and railing systems, which “have the potential to turn new and existing towers into vertical green power plants,” says Mitrex CEO Danial Hadizadeh. “I had a meeting with the head of construction of one of Toronto’s largest developers, and he said, ‘We’ve been waiting for this for years.’”
So too have many condo dwellers — at least if AMLI Residential’s 2020 Sustainable Living Index is anything to go by. It surveyed more than 4,800 of the developer’s U.S. apartment residents, and found that 83 per cent believed living in a green community is beneficial to their health, with 59 per cent willing to pay more to live in a green or sustainable community.