We're in Sunny Manitoba, time to tap into those rays?

Someone called our morning show listener line last week and said something to the effect of "that story you did about the couple living on solar power was too hippy-dippy for me."
Bev and Will Eert stand beside their solar array at their home about 40 kilometres southwest of Portage la Prairie, Man. (Marcy Markusa/CBC Manitoba)

Someone called our morning show listener line last week and said something to the effect of "that story you did about the couple living on solar power was too hippy-dippy for me."

The thing is, times have changed. However, I somewhat understand where the comment was coming from.

The last time I did a story about a couple living off the grid I was in an open field in Southeastern Manitoba near Vita.

A young couple wanted to escape the materialistic grind of the city and simplify their lives. They were using old-style hand tools to clear their land, learning how to cure meat and eating a lot of canned food.

Their living quarters were a semi-truck trailer that had been donated to them.

They had it insulated and added a few reclaimed windows. Their bathroom was a hole covered with straw to keep the smell tolerable. 

They read books by candlelight and a small battery-powered radio was considered a luxury to them.

They told me their grandparents didn't understand why they were choosing to live this way since they had worked their entire lives so their children wouldn't have to live without amenities.

The couple said their personal choice was decreasing their stress levels and bringing them closer together. In my opinion their story was not an example of a lifestyle choice that the average person might consider.

One could consider it of course, but they were a very unique couple dedicated to a shared dream.

The couple I visited for our solar story this week does have some similarities to their counterparts near Vita. Bev and Will Eert are also living off the grid, but in southwestern Manitoba.

They are also dedicated to a shared dream — to live in a home that uses only solar power.

The Eerts also told me that they believe that their lifestyle choice is a good decision for the environment and really,    who can argue with that?

However, that would be where the similarities end. The Eerts are hardly "roughing it."

I think it's important to understand that because what the Eerts are doing is an example of how far the idea of living off the grid has come.

It also opens up a world of possibilities and questions about how realistic it might be in sunny Manitoba to do the same. Their home is a pretty average looking bungalow but the north and west sides are built into the side of a hill, kind of like a walk-out basement with a roof.

This provides insulation and maximizes the efficiency of the sun's rays streaming through the huge wall of windows along the south side. All winter the home stayed at about 20 degrees just using passive heating.

Bev is growing olive trees and figs inside. She will have a dishwasher and an electric range. She has a luxury tub sitting under one of those windows overlooking the Assiniboine Valley.

She told me that she wanted to show everyone their home so people might understand that you don't have to suffer to go solar.

Their solar system cost about $40,000 to put in and includes two large arrays of solar panels and a back-up battery system that charges for night time use or cloudy days.

Any extra solar power that is generated that the Eert's don't use goes into a radiant floor heating system.

Any extra electricity after that could be paid back from Manitoba Hydro but it would be at the same rate that Hydro charges rate-payers.

To bring hydro electricity to the Eert's property would have cost $60,000 or one third more than the cost of their solar system.

So essentially, they will fare better being their own utility.

The Eerts said that when they were in the process of making the choice, however, Manitoba was the worst province in Canada in terms of accessing information or grants to make the decision to go solar easier.

Back to our listener line.

I am not writing this blog to specifically promote solar electricity or suggest that we all get off the grid.

I do think, however, that we are a long way from the idea that solar powered homes or communities are "hippy-dippy." In fact, many parts of Canada and the rest of the world are far ahead of us in understanding that.

For example, in Germany, there is a law that every new structure must get some of its heating energy from renewable sources whether that's the sun, the wind or geothermal.

I know what some of you are thinking: We don't live in Germany.

We do, however, live in sunny Manitoba, a place where hydro-electricity is the big game in town and the chosen direction for our energy future.

This week the Public Utilities Board continues hearings about the proposed new large dams in Northern Manitoba.

I guess my question after learning more about modern solar electricity this week is pretty simple: Do we have to put all of our eggs in one basket? 

Or while we're about to get our feet wet, yet again, with another dam, would it hurt to look up to the sky and squint at another possibility?

About the Author

Marcy Markusa

Host, Information Radio

Marcy Markusa hosts Information Radio on CBC Radio One 89.3 FM / 990 AM in Winnipeg. Born and raised in the Manitoba capital, Marcy is passionate about the future of our community and loves how it's growing in both confidence and prosperity. She thrives on getting honest and straight-forward answers for listeners and infuses the show with her energetic warmth and sense of humour.