Illustration by Kyra Kendall/Torontoist.
In these vitamin D–deprived months, visiting your neighbourhood tan-sham might seem the only way to bathe in the warmth of the sun. But students working their glutes at the University of Toronto Athletic Centre can get the real thing. In December, the school installed a hundred solar panels on the roof of its fitness dungeon, which will heat almost a quarter of the shower and laundry water during peak summer months. With significant annual reductions in greenhouse gases—equal to taking eleven cars off the road permanently—it’s currently the biggest solar panel initiative in the GTA.
And scale isn’t the only thing that makes this project hot: it was also the brainchild of an undergraduate student.
Ashley Taylor was studying in the Faculty of Applied Sciences when she began investigating the viability of using solar energy to heat the Athletic Centre’s pool water for a class assignment. Upon graduation, she was hired by the university’s Sustainability Office, which put her in a position to bring her research from page to practice.
“The project emerged from Ashley’s original idea and work,” says Beth Savan, director of the Sustainability Office. “She was working very closely with the people who are promoting sustainability retrofit, and was in a position to remind them. It was through her passion and determination and upbeat support that the project finally took flight.”
This isn’t the first time a student has seen their green scheme come to life. Three of the Sustainability Office’s major initiatives—Bikechain, Rewire, and aspects of their paper reduction effort—all started as sparks in the minds of grads-to-be. In fact, the greatest impediment for a student with an idea isn’t necessarily that they’re small cogs in a big, carbon-chugging machine—it’s convincing the big cogs that their ideas are financially as well as environmentally sustainable.
Bruce Kidd, dean of the Faculty of Physical Education and Health, says the project’s biggest roadblocks were finding the cash and ensuring the panels would be a good long-term investment. “These things are not always easy to do, and it’s taken us a couple years to realize it, but we were pretty much persuaded right from the get-go,” he says. “We had some meetings, and the bureaucrats like me with responsibilities for budget said, ‘How much is it going to cost? What’s the payoff going to be? Can we get more partners in it?’ This is a very slow-moving bureaucracy, but that being said I think it was pretty steady. I like to think we want to implement good ideas.”
In this case, the project got the yes vote after receiving subsidies from the Ontario Solar Thermal Heating Incentive and the ecoENERGY for Renewable Heat Incentive, which covered about a third of the cost and allowed for an under-ten-year payback. Savan says she’s thrilled with the outcome, but hopes these sorts of incentives become more readily available. “I would like to see a more even playing field. There have been massive subsidies for nuclear. As it becomes more level and analogous subsidies are applied to renewables, you will see universities jump at them much more readily.”
The challenge of cost is perhaps best illustrated by the numbers: this almost-half-million-dollar project ultimately covered about 16% of the centre’s year-round water heating [PDF], which gives a sense of the massive funds needed to get substantial initiatives off the ground. For now, the faculty is focusing on a list of smaller projects and student initiatives to help reduce their footprint. This includes the formation of a faculty-specific Sustainability Committee, whose first order of business was getting students to sign a pledge to ditch long showers for an in-a-pinch rinse. And you know what, co-eds? This is college. Which mean the old “shower with a friend” cliché might very well make sense.