Mapping the power of sunshine

Researchers find solar savings for North Vancouver home owners

British Columbia is known for its rainy weather and dark winter months but that hasn’t stopped researchers in UBC’s Faculty of Forestry from mapping solar energy potential in North Vancouver.

“Everyone thinks Canada has a cool wet climate, but we have more solar energy potential than parts of Germany; and Germany is the world leader in solar energy use and technology,” says Nicholas Coops, a forestry professor and Canada Research Chair in Remote Sensing.

Coops and his PhD student Rory Tooke are using remote sensing technology, developed for natural resource industries like forestry and mining, to assess solar energy potential in an urban setting. They want to show residents of North Vancouver the benefits of using a rooftop-mounted solar thermal panel to heat water for their homes.

To do this, Coops and Tooke use a remote sensing technology known as light detection and ranging (LiDAR). LiDAR gathers data by emitting millions of laser pulses to the ground and recording their return time from a plane or helicopter.

This LiDAR data provides very detailed and previously unavailable information about the three-dimensional form of all buildings, trees and terrain over an area, and can be used to develop accurate models of urban environments. The technology can also give researchers an estimate of the heating and hot water demands of buildings by providing information about their size and structural characteristics.

Using LiDAR data for the District of North Vancouver, and in collaboration with the District, the UBC researchers developed a website that gives residents personalized information about the solar energy potential in their homes.

Residents of North Vancouver can go online, find their house and see how much sunlight hits their roof and where. The website will then tell them how much money they could save if they installed a solar hot water device, and the carbon dioxide emission savings.

The LiDAR information is so sophisticated it can indicate if a tree or building is blocking the sun’s energy from reaching even a small portion of a resident’s roof. The researchers found that a surprising number of homes in North Vancouver would benefit from installing solar-powered hot water systems.

“Many of the roofs are south facing and on a slope so they get a fair amount of sunlight, especially during the summer months,” says Tooke. “On its own, a solar water heating device wouldn’t be enough. But combined with traditional methods for heating water, a rooftop mounted solar thermal panel could provide financial savings.”

“Within ten years, we expect that governments and businesses will be using this technology to assess energy demand and supply for all buildings in the city,” says Coops. “Tools like this will benefit municipalities and help them reach their targets for renewable energy use.”

The intent for the North Vancouver pilot project is to have similar tools adopted across a number of municipalities.

Most communities don’t have LiDAR data available to them, but Coops and Tooke think it will become more common as LiDAR becomes less expensive. The District of North Vancouver is an ideal partner as they have access to LiDAR data and have made commitments to promoting solar energy through the Solar BC initiative, a group of B.C. communities working to encourage people to be less reliant on fossil fuels, and to tap into the energy provided by the sun.

In November, the District of North Vancouver was awarded first place in the leadership and innovation category at the 2010 conference of the Union of British Columbia Municipalities for the website that the District developed with the help of Coops and Tooke.

Watch a tutorial on how to use the solar calculator tool:

Related topics:

UBC Reports | Vol. 57 | No. 2 | Feb. 4, 2011

UBC professor Nicholas Coops (left) and student Rory Tooke have developed a tool to help North Vancouver homeowners calculate their solar potential. Photo: Martin Dee

UBC professor Nicholas Coops (left) and student Rory Tooke have developed a tool to help North Vancouver homeowners calculate their solar potential. Photo: Martin Dee

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To use the website and see the power of sunshine, visit the Solar Calculator

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