What was originally intended to be a four-year test period, turned into 17 years of solar power. But now that power is going out.

In operation since 2007, the 52-home subdivision within the Drake Landing Solar Community has consisted of an interconnected district heating system, including 798 solar collectors mounted on garage roofs.

These garage rooftop solar collectors collect and store energy underground so the energy can be distributed during the winter months.

The community had numerous funding partners when it was being built, including ATCO, the Alberta Government, Sterling Homes Ltd., and the Government of Canada.

Their objective was to get enough grant funding to completely fund all of the costs during construction, and for four years of operation following completion, including construction, operation, maintenance, and if required, the decommissioning of the project after the four-year test period.

Unfortunately, though, the heating system for the community has recently been showing its age and critical components have begun to fail, which has affected the reliability of the system.

Due to the increasing difficulty in finding replacement parts and the correct technical expertise to maintain and repair the system, the system has not been working as intended and has now reached its end of life.

Because the DLSC is responsible for providing an effective heat solution to all the homeowners in the community, and due to the high cost required to rebuild or maintain the system, the board made the decision to cease operations, decommission the solar project, and move to a different heating source.

An information packet on the ATCO website about Drake Landing shows that issues with solar collection began in 2017 and have progressively gotten worse.

Issues related to borehole thermal energy storage (BTES) began in 2020 and got progressively worse as time went on.

There was also a failure of borehole loop temperature-sensor sending units, which detect the groundwater flow velocity and direction in the vicinity of a borehole heat exchanger, which is a device used to extract geothermal heat from shallow rocks without geofluid (any fluid used to extract thermal energy) being produced.

Because those underground sensors are inaccessible and irreplaceable due to their location, liquid quality and the piping flow abilities are unknown.

The information packet also shows that air handler concerns began in 2020, due to a shortage of replacement parts.

The original air handler hydronic coil unit they used is no longer available and their boiler units are all at the end of their life, with parts failing since 2022, along with numerous other issues related to their storage tanks and circulating pumps.

According to a slide show presentation from the ATCO website about Drake Landing, there were significant maintenance issues in 2020-2021 related to the aging of the control system, solar collectors' expansion bellows O-rings, and the water quality in the open tank short-term storage tank loop.

There was also a controller failure that caused the homes to be without heat for a few hours during the winter.

Between 2020 and 2024, due to parts for the system becoming increasingly harder to find and those with the technical expertise to make the repairs becoming harder to find, some homeowners needed to heat their homes with supplementary space heaters.

It was at this time that the Drake Landing Company (DLC) added redundancies into their system to help keep the homes in the community heated while the company decided how they wished to proceed.

Their options moving forward were to do nothing but maintain the system and operate it "as is", decommission the project, recommission the project with a modern system, or build an entirely new district energy system.

Things continued to degrade until the 2023-2024 heating season, when the system was no longer heating homes as it was intended, causing all of the homes to become 100 per cent reliant on natural gas boilers located at the energy centre.

While each home in the community pays a monthly fee to access the solar power heating system, the cost per month to run the DLSC is roughly twice what the residents pay.

The most recent amount each home pays into the solar community is $85 per month, or $53,040 per year for all the homes combined.

Meanwhile, it costs the DLC board between $95,000 and $115,000 per year, so, each year the DLC board members are paying between $41,960 and $61,960 per year to cover the costs of the repairs.

As of 2024, there are two of the DLC board members left, leaving only ATCO and the Town of Okotoks as the remaining board members covering all of those repair costs.

Despite their efforts, the DLC tried to find new grant funding but was unable to secure any extra funding to help cover the costs of the repairs.

When it was created, not only was the Drake Landing Solar Community (DLSC) the first of its kind in North America, but it was also the largest subdivision of energy-efficient and environmentally responsible homes in Canada.

The DLSC was also North America's first major implementation of seasonal solar thermal energy storage.

Until recent years, the community had over 90 per cent of its space heating needs met by solar thermal energy. Because of that, it's estimated that each one of the 52 homes in the community produced roughly five tonnes fewer greenhouse gas emissions per year than an average home. That works out to roughly 260 tonnes fewer greenhouse gas emissions produced every year by the entire community.

These homes were also 30 per cent more efficient than conventional residential buildings of a similar age.

According to the Drake Landing Solar Company, they held a barbeque last September and invited all homeowners from the DLSC to attend and provide input on how they wished to proceed.

"At this event, the Company made a commitment to keep homeowners informed, to listen to and acknowledge their concerns, and to provide feedback on how their input influenced the decisions of the Board," the DLSC said in an email. " As we heard their concerns and ideas, the DLC developed a ‘cash out’ option and tiered greening options (which are available at an additional cost) as part of the decommissioning project."

According to a Drake Landing resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, while he wasn't able to make the barbeque last September, he knows people in his community who attended.

"They've gone to a lot of these things. They've given their input, but they're not really sure what happens with that information after they voice their opinions. Then we're all left in the dark again for months and finally, we get this."

He says they received a couple of letters from the DLC earlier this year but heard nothing again until April.

"It was a random thing, like 'Oh yeah, come drop in and come chat with us.' And we found out that they had made a decision. Give us a big information package and at the end of the day they've decided that their best option forward is just decommissioning the system."

They were told the cost to renovate or upgrade the system would be very high, especially for not having a guarantee of being a viable solution.

The DLC covers the cost of decommissioning the system, including the costs for the removal of solar thermal panels, the collection system, the abandonment of the heating loop, and the demolition and site remediation of the BTES and Energy Centre. The total cost of that is expected to be $2.2 million.

To make sure the homes have proper heating before winter arrives, the DLC has provided their residents with four different options for new heating sources.

The base option is replacing the current heating system with a natural gas furnace, which will be at no additional cost to residents.

Option B is a combination of a natural gas furnace and hot water, which will cost residents $4,975.

Option C is a Hybrid heating option, which includes an electric heat pump and natural gas furnace but will cost the homeowner $7,385.

The last option is $7,600 in cash so the homeowner can choose a completely different option if they so desire.

"They're not leaving us high and dry and they're not saying, 'Well, we tried. It didn't work, good Luck,'" says the Drake Landing resident. "They're definitely doing a lot more than you might typically expect a big corporation to do."

He says that he had originally decided to move to Drake Landing because of the different energy sources and the potential for lower energy costs overall.

"To be able to stand up for yourself and say, 'Hey, we tried, it didn't quite work the way we thought it would, here's what we are willing to do for you.' That, at least, helps a guy out."

Homeowners in Drake Landing now have to decide which heating option they want by July 15th.

The home heating conversions will begin on July 1st, and the DLC is aiming to have all homes moved to a new heating source by Oct. 31st. The site will be fully decommissioned by the end of 2025.

Once homes are disconnected from the system and are on their own heat source, the $85 monthly fee that the homeowners are currently paying will end.

"The system did work. It was working. The hard part is that this was a first of its kind in North America. This community was the guinea pig for a lot of other projects that went forward," the Drake Landing resident said.

Even though this project is coming to a close, the community has won numerous awards during its run, including an Energy Agency Solar Heating and Cooling Award in 2013 and an Energy Globe World Award in 2011

"Over its lifetime, the Drake Landing Solar Community inspired new ideas and proved what was possible for sustainable energy. Unprecedented in the world, the innovative project garnered support from industry, academia, and government - all while drawing attention and prestigious accolades from around the globe," said the Drake Landing Company Board of Directors in a slide show presentation from the ATCO website. "Although the time has come to wind the project down, our sincere thanks go to the homeowners and residents who have been a part of this success story - none of which would have been possible without your unwavering belief in a better energy alternative. For that, we thank you"

To learn more about the Drake Landing Solar Community, click here.