A Family Affair: Alternative Energy Research in 1970s Saskatchewan

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Editor’s Note: This article is part of our Coulees to Muskeg – A Saskatchewan Environmental History series. This series is a partnership between NiCHE and the Saskatchewan History & Folklore Society (SHFS). All articles in the series appear on the NiCHE website and are published in SHFS’s Folklore magazine.

Laura Stewart remembers taking anemometer readings with her siblings, carefully noting down wind speeds and directions at their rural home near Moose Mountain Provincial Park in southeast Saskatchewan. She laughs recalling how she would yell and whistle at her brother and sister to try and ensure they took readings from different sites at the same time.1

The family’s activities were illustrative of a surging interest in energy alternatives in Saskatchewan at the time, a place that was already recognized for its renewable energy potential.

Laura’s father, Don, was an engineering professor at the University of Regina and the founding director of the Canadian Plains Research Centre. In the 1970s, Don Stewart was one of many researchers around the world responding to the global energy crisis by examining alternative energy technologies. But for Don, at least, that research was more than a mere academic pursuit. While he focused his professional work on wind energy conversion systems, he incorporated a range of renewable energy and energy-saving measures into the home the family built just outside Arcola. The pursuit of energy alternatives was a family affair for the Stewarts, from the home they built to their road trip vacations to visit wind farms in the United States. The family’s activities were illustrative of a surging interest in energy alternatives in Saskatchewan at the time, a place that was already recognized for its renewable energy potential.

‘A perfect situation’: Saskatchewan’s renewable energy potential

Concern abounded in the 1970s about dwindling supplies of oil and gas in the western world after a tremendous post-Second World War expansion of energy use. There was growing attention to the impact of burning fossil fuels on the global atmosphere, too.2 And then the geopolitical 1973 OPEC oil embargo turned the western energy situation into a crisis as oil prices steeply rose, increasing focus on the security of energy supply and on the development of alternative sources. By that decade, Saskatchewan’s renewable energy potential was already being discussed.

In 1976, the Saskatoon Environmental Society wrote that “Saskatchewan has more wind and sunshine than most areas of Canada, and is in a perfect situation to initiate an innovative effort in the development of wind and solar technology in this province.”3 The young environmental group argued that Allan Blakeney’s New Democratic Party government had led innovation in many policy fields and was well-positioned to do the same in energy.

The University of Regina Extension Office regularly organized public seminars on energy issues in the 1970s, which also demonstrated a high level of public interest in energy topics.

The University of Regina (U of R) Extension Office regularly organized public seminars on energy issues in the 1970s, which also demonstrated a high level of public interest in energy topics. All of this helped lead to a flurry of alternative energy activity in the province, with researchers designing and applying new renewable energy and energy-saving methods and technologies. This is the context that Don Stewart found himself working in, and which his work looked to validate.

Stewart helped to establish an Energy Research Unit at the U of R, which hosted national and international researchers, including at solar and wind energy symposia in 1976 and 1977. Harkening back to the days when farms across the prairies relied to some extent on power generated by small windmills, Stewart was convinced of the potential for wind power on the prairies, and he devoted a lot of his own professional energy towards making it more feasible.4

Along with colleagues Gerald Fuller and Clark Jeffries, Stewart focused attention on refining a vertical axis turbine design—dubbed the “eggbeater”—popularized by the National Research Council.5 This was a design they hoped would be particularly useful for rural and remote dwellings, including farms. Vertical turbines could utilize wind coming from any direction and lower to the ground than conventional designs. However, vertical turbine blades were expensive, and Fuller and Jeffries worked on designing wooden blades that would be easier and cheaper to source and produce than the typical steel ones. In a 1977 report, they were especially optimistic about the properties of fir wood.6 Stewart’s work came to focus on devising a braking system to lessen the stress on those wooden blades, effectively trying to ensure that they would not be blown apart by particularly fierce winds.

The “eggbeater” vertical axis turbine at the Stewart home, an early example of interweaving alternative energy systems into a domestic living space.
The “eggbeater” vertical axis turbine at the Stewart home. Photo Courtesy of Laura Stewart.

Stewart saw real potential for a widespread application of this technology, but he had just one turbine to work with, which was the one sited at his rural home. This highlighted and exacerbated challenges common to renewable energy research at the time. The costs involved could be daunting, and sourcing and replacing parts and materials was difficult given how new these applications were. While the innovative wood blades were cheaper than conventional ones, even those could be hard to replace given the need to find knot-free boards of suitable length, which then had to be planed, steamed, and shaped.

Researchers also had little previous experience to draw on. They faced novel problems and needed time to work out design issues.7 These factors slowed research down, but they did not lessen Stewart’s enthusiasm for the work, or the participation of his family in that research—having the project at home meant the family could often monitor the work together. With this arrangement the Stewarts tended to find that their work, hobbies, and day-to-day living blended together.

There were other examples of small-scale renewable energy research in the province at this time, including one project that examined the feasibility of using wind power to generate electricity for pumping oil.8 For their part, the provincial government and the Saskatchewan Power Corporation tended to act cautiously, unconvinced of the cost effectiveness of scaling up renewable energy at that time. When the oil price crises of the ‘70s abated in the early 1980s, it put an even greater damper on efforts to expand renewable energy, despite the strides made over the prior decade.

Airtight Houses on the Prairies

Just as important as finding new sources of energy, though, was finding energy savings, and the government proved eager to fund research into energy conservation. The Stewart home near Moose Mountain was exemplary of several new design techniques that researchers in the province began refining in the late 1970s to cut down on home energy use.

Another fond childhood memory of Laura Stewart’s was trying to sort seven truckloads of rocks into different sizes by hand. The rocks were a key part of a solar heating system, retaining heat from the sun to radiate back into the home to keep it warm at night. Don ultimately devised a mechanical sorting system with metal rods to save his children the effort. He also heavily insulated the roof and walls and wrapped the house in a vapour barrier.9 While the Stewart home relied on wood as a back-up source of heat—until a geothermal system was set up years later—this combination of solar heating with dense insulation and airtight construction soon made it possible to build new homes without furnaces even in the harsh Saskatchewan climate.

The Stewart children helping Don sort rocks for their solar heating system
The Stewart children helping Don sort rocks for their solar heating system. Photo Courtesy of Laura Stewart.

Many of these same techniques were refined and featured in the centrepiece of the province’s energy research, the Saskatchewan Conservation House (SCH). The SCH was a demonstration project led by the Saskatchewan Research Council meant to showcase alternative energy principles and how they could operate efficiently under “prairie conditions.”

The house was built in Regina in 1977 by a team of engineers led by Harold Orr from the National Research Council. Like the Stewart home, the SCH featured a densely-insulated and tightly-sealed exterior kept warm by solar heating. Instead of rocks, the Regina house used massive water tanks as the solar heat storage medium.

The application of the air-to-air heat exchanger, which used air being ventilated out of the dwelling to warm incoming cold air, further made the home an indisputable technical success: when complete, it reduced space-heating energy use by ninety percent.10 After construction, the government opened the house to public tours for the next year and more than 37,000 people visited it, including researchers from around the world.11 The home was then sold. With this work complete, many of its designers began applying the same principles to retrofitting existing homes with similar success.

The Stewart Home near Moose Mountain Provincial Park in Saskatchewan was an early example of a home designed to use alternative energy.
The Stewart Home. Photo Courtesy of Laura Stewart.

Monuments to Alternative Energies Past (and Future?)

Despite all this promising work, the broader context in which it was happening dramatically shifted in the early 1980s. The costs of fuel fell from the heights of the late 1970s, taking away much of the urgency that instigated research into alternatives. Just as importantly, governments less interested in energy alternatives took power in both Ottawa and Regina, led by Brian Mulroney and Grant Devine, respectively.

Funding for alternative energy research was rapidly reduced. Saskatchewan’s Office of Energy Conservation, which was opened in 1977, was shuttered in 1982. For his part, Don Stewart tried to cobble together research funding through student grants to continue his wind energy research, but it never amounted to enough.

Now, the turbine stands as a monument to this dynamic era of alternative energy research.

Today, a vertical axis turbine still stands at the house that the Stewart family built in the 1970s. It is tied off so that the blades remain stationary since Don was not able to complete his work on the braking system. Now, the turbine stands as a monument to this dynamic era of alternative energy research. Although it largely failed to catch on in Saskatchewan, its influence can be seen elsewhere in the world. Nearly fifty years on, that work feels like a significant missed opportunity for the province. And yet, its potential remains.

Feature Image: The turbine stands as a monument to this dynamic era of alternative energy research. Courtesy of Laura Stewart.


1 Interview with Laura and Nora Stewart, Regina, Saskatchewan, September 2022. An anemometer is a device used to measure wind speed and direction.

2 This was true even in Saskatchewan. See for example “Energy” in Man and Resources Program in Saskatchewan, ed. D.G. Wyllie (CCREM & Environment Saskatchewan, 1973), 144.

3 Environment Probe 60 (March/April 1976): 9. In 1981, the Saskatoon Environmental Society changed its name to the Saskatchewan Environmental Society.

4 W.D. Stewart, “Wind Power Today – Its Place in Our Energy Picture,” Gerald A. Fuller, ed., Wind Energy Conversion Systems: Proceedings of the Wind Energy Symposium (Canadian Plains Research Centre, 1978), 9-27.

5 G.A. Fuller, “History and development of wind turbines,” in Gerald A. Fuller, ed., Wind Energy Conversion Systems: Proceedings of the Wind Energy Symposium (Canadian Plains Research Centre, 1978), 1-8. This type of vertical turbine was also referred to as a Darrieus, after Georges Jean Marie Darrieus, a French engineer who patented a similar design in the 1920s.

6 G. Fuller and C. Jeffries, “Development of Low Cost Wind Turbine Blades,” presented at Solar Energy Update ’77 Conference, University of Alberta, August 1977.

7 W.D. Stewart, “Final Report – Wind/Electric Conversion Project,” Contribution No. 80 (Energy Research Unit, University of Regina), 17.

8 Ernie Pappas, “Wind Turbines for Pumping Oil: Final Technical Report,” Saskatchewan Oil and Gas Corporation, Miscellaneous Report FP-7.

9 Interview with the Stewarts.

10 Michael F. Shaw, “Residential Energy Conservation: The Saskatchewan Story,” in Solar Energy Society of Canada Conference Proceedings Volume I/II (August 1982), 199.

11 One of the Saskatchewan Conservation House’s visitors in later years was Wolfgang Feist, who would return to his native Germany and found the Passivhaus Institut, which promotes the passive house building standard that remains cutting edge in sustainable building design. In 2015, Feist awarded Harold Orr a “pioneer award” from the institution for his design work on the SCH. When I sat down with Orr in 2022, he was happy to give me a tour of super energy-efficient homes in Saskatoon; most of them look inconspicuous. Interview with Harold Orr, Saskatoon, SK, July 2022.

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Justin Fisher

Justin is a PhD candidate at the University of Saskatchewan. His research is examining responses to the 1970s energy crisis in Saskatchewan.

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