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Going solar in the sunny Okanagan

When fire swept across Kelowna’s Okanagan Mountain in 2003, Leo Gebert and his brother Andy lost everything.

The owners of St. Hubertus Estate Winery could only watch as flames descended on their 76-acre vineyard and destroyed their shop, their wine cellars and their homes. But as the family started the rebuilding process, they saw opportunity.

“Because we were starting totally from scratch, there was an opportunity to include energy efficiency in the winery operations. It made sense,” explains Leo Gebert.

Originally from Switzerland, the family was familiar with much of the emerging technology. In fact, they had used ground-source heating – a central heating/cooling system that pumps heat to or from the ground, using the earth as a heat source in the winter or a heat sink in the summer – for nearly three decades in Europe. Interestingly, in Switzerland, there is about 1,500 hours of sunshine annually, compared to the Okanagan with its 2,000 hours on average, making the Okanagan ideal for solar heating.

As they installed ground-source heat pumps in their winery operations and their home, Gebert says they also did the “prep work” for solar hot water heating, installing the infrastructure and ensuring their winery was solar-ready.

“In 2004 when we were rebuilding, it was challenging to find a solar supplier and it was expensive. And to be honest, I was worried about being a pioneer of the technology in the Okanagan because technology changes so quickly,” he recalls. “At the same time, it was something I wanted to do in the long run.”

So when SolarBC launched its rebate program in 2009, Gebert says that was the incentive he needed to install solar panels and complete the project. The rebate process was easy and straightforward and today, four buildings on his property have solar hot water heating. Eight panels were installed in all, each about 4ft by 8ft, the size of an average area rug.

“The panels aren’t prominent; they sit nicely on the roof. I’m always so amazed how much heat you can get from the system. In the Okanagan, in this climate, it makes complete sense to use solar hot water heating,” he adds.

Gebert says he even angles the panels to capture the most sun depending on time of day – if he wants more hot water during the morning hours; he angles the solar panels to capture the morning sunshine.

“But that’s just me,” he laughs. “I like to watch the temperatures and really get into the system and how it works. Anyone can install solar panels on their home in the Okanagan and they don’t have to get as detailed and technical as I have.”

According to SolarBC, an average household that uses electric fuel to heat their home can save $200 annually and almost $6,000 over the lifetime of a solar hot water system, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions of 1 to 2 tonnes per year.

Gebert is saving money on his energy bill but he admits the solar hot water install was about more than just the savings.

“We feel good about doing the right thing. When I have my hot shower, I know there’s no carbon footprint.”