A for “Alberta”

Ottawa XPress – Shotgun – April 28, 2005

Albertans have always had a good laugh at us here in Ottawa, I’m sure of it. When both provinces are freezing their asses off in the dead of winter, it’s not unlikely that our Albertan friends and relatives will ring us boasting about serving up a BBQ, in shorts, in their freaky Chinook weather. But then of course we return the chuckle when we hear about their snowfalls mid-July. But with their gorgeous summers, maybe a little natural air conditioning is more of an enjoyable relief from Mother Nature than a bother. Either way you look at it, Alberta’s got a lot going for it.

With the Alberta Scene upon our city from April 28 to May 10, it will be impossible not to think about Wild Rose Country. Alberta makes me remember Banff Springs, tepees and the Calgary Zoo. But I also think of my Alberta buddy who gets up to his grandpa’s ranch for archery, long walks and countless evenings strumming his Chet Atkins in solitude. He sends me photographs of the spectacular mountain view from the quiet, isolated paradise, and I get jealous of that piece of nature.

While Ottawa is perfectly connected to both city living in the downtown core and the country experience in places like Perth (or over the border in Chelsea-Wakefield), Alberta has mountains. And what a feeling it is to look around and see these massive rocks jutting right up to the sky. While we’re stuck in the valley, Albertans get treated to majestic ranges perfect for skiing, snowshoeing and snowboarding. Yep, a place where you’ve got a chance of joining the mile-high club without setting foot on a plane.

True enough – Alberta’s in the news now and then for things we wouldn’t quite call PC in the East. Premier Ralph Klein’s very quotable self stumbles into the news from time to time. Drinking will do that. To be fair, who hasn’t stepped in something on their way home one dark and staggery night? Of course, we might not pop into a local men’s shelter and start picking on its occupants as Klein did oh so many years ago… but that’s another story. The point is, that’s the kind of story that makes headlines, right along with things like Alberta having the strongest opposition to gay marriage of all the provinces. Scandal, even Canadian style, is sexy and juicy and sells well – and sometimes the less dramatic things get lost.

For instance, did you know Alberta is a very energy-efficient province? Take the forward-thinking town called Okotoks for example – with a motto like “Historic Past, Sustainable Future,” these are people who know how to work a buzzword. But more than that, these Okotoks folks are making use of solar power to do everything from resurface the ice in their hockey arena to heat the community pool and recycling centre. And pretty soon they’ll be using the sun of the summer to heat an entire community throughout their undeniably frigid winters.

Allow me a technical moment to describe the plan. Using a seasonal solar storage system called borehole storage technology, the sun’s energy, captured from solar collectors installed on 52 houses and detached garage roofs, will heat a fluid that can transfer heat underground. The underground reserve spreads out to the size of a baseball diamond where it will stay until it’s needed to warm up the wool-socked Okotokians in their energy-efficient houses.

Anyone who’s lived through a Canadian winter will have a pretty good idea of what’s been standing in the way of adopting solar-heating technology in Canada. The sun, in the true Canadian snowbird tradition, pisses off to the south for much of the winter. Pretty often it does the absent-parent thing during spring and fall – you eventually learn it’s not going to make it out for your baseball practices and regattas, or even pitch in while you rake the leaves. Canadian weather, most of the year, adds up to nothing more than short days, cloudy skies and snow-covered solar panels – not great stuff if you want to convert sun into heat for your house for an entire season. But the research that comes out of the Okotoks project might just fix that.

And when you take into consideration the fact that Ottawa still won’t let homeowners install solar hot water systems, that little town in Alberta is miles to the left of us in at least one way.

There is a sense of the hearty and the hardy about Albertans. Maybe it’s the stereotype of strong farm boys with weathered hands the size of T-bone steaks, wearing alt-country gear and driving pickups, that turns my crank. Or the rodeo heroes at the Calgary Stampede, the handsome Mounties, all the hockey players, the steaks, the magnificent national parks, rich cultural heritage, low taxes, pierogi, Grandma Hill’s borsch and punk legends SNFU. Whatever it is, it works for me!

So over the next few weekends, take the opportunity to raise a glass of Alberta microbrew, slap on a few guerrilla solar panels, enjoy an old-time Ukrainian breakfast and take in some of the awesome talent in town for Alberta Scene.

– Sylvie Hill