In the fight against climate change, some innovators are gunning for moonshot ideas, such as generating energy through nuclear fusion or scrubbing carbon emissions from the atmosphere. John Paul Morgan, however, has set his sights on something more utilitarian: the humble window blind. It may look like run-of-the-mill office decor, but Morgan, founder and president of Toronto-based Morgan Solar, sees it as an effective tool to tackle the surprisingly high carbon footprint of many buildings.
“I’m obsessed with light and how it works,” says Morgan, whose company finds new ways to integrate solar energy into urban environments. “I can’t help myself — my eyes are always tracing and retracing rays.”
Although the amount of light hitting a single pane of glass may not amount to much, Morgan points out that the office towers that populate most Canadian cities have hundreds, even thousands, of windows. And those towers are heavy carbon emitters. Canada’s residential, commercial and institutional buildings contribute about 17 percent of our total GHG emissions through the use of fossil fuels and electricity — that’s approximately 114 of the 670 megatonnes of carbon emitted in 2021.
High-rise buildings are among the worst offenders — most emit significantly more greenhouse gases than mid- and low-rise structures, mainly due to their complex heating and cooling systems. (Glass windows are also notorious for their heat loss.) If Canada is going to meet its emissions reduction target of 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 — and net-zero emissions by 2050 — building managers will need to significantly cut their properties’ fossil-fuel consumption.
One of Morgan Solar’s solutions is a smart blind system equipped with sensors that help regulate a building’s thermal load, the amount of energy required to maintain a desired temperature. (The system is linked to an analytics portal that enables facility managers to monitor and optimize performance by testing possible adjustments on a digital twin model.) When the interior needs warming and illumination, Morgan Solar’s blinds let more sunlight in, and less when rooms are overheating. And when the shades are closed, built-in solar cells harness the sun’s rays and convert them into electricity that can be used to power lights, chargers and other items.
“It may be just 100 watts here and there, but it adds up,” says Morgan, whose customers include the Canadian government and U.S. technology company Cisco Systems Inc. The electricity generated can be about the same as rooftop solar panels, while also cutting heating and cooling costs, he adds.
The emissions reductions are location dependent, based on what fuel is being offset and the GHG content of the grid. In Toronto or Ottawa, the company’s energy blinds reduce emissions by about 300 kilograms per window, per year, Morgan says — that’s the equivalent of charging more than 36,000 smartphones. In Calgary or Houston, where electricity is powered by fossil-fuel-burning sources, reductions are higher.
Even without the addition of solar cells, smart blinds make a significant difference. BGIS, a facility management company with a portfolio of more than 40,000 buildings around the world, has installed software-controlled, light-tracking Morgan Solar blinds to manage the thermal load on one floor of the C.D. Howe Building in Ottawa. The company estimates the building’s emissions dropped by about 13 tonnes in the first year of use, according to Lorri Rowlandson, senior vice president of strategy and innovation.
“Every time you touch a building, there’s a chance to make it more sustainable,” Rowlandson says, citing the example of a procurement manager tasked with buying new window coverings. “Instead of just buying the same plastic blinds, you can reimagine blinds in a way that could drive a bigger ecosystem of benefits. That’s still a little bit of a struggle in our industry, but we’re starting to broaden our minds into more complex solutions.”
Morgan’s eyes dance when he describes the moment he discovered the potential of solar energy to transform lives. He studied photonics (how light interacts with matter) in university and worked for a few years at fibre optics company JDS Uniphase, then decided to explore life overseas by taking a logistics position with Médecins Sans Frontières. It was 2005, and he was managing a rural hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with a precarious water supply — 20 local women had to carry it from a nearby spring. A gas generator powered a water distribution system, but fuel was prohibitively expensive and not always available.
Morgan set up a solar-powered system that pumped it directly from the spring. “That system only took two solar panels,” he says. “It just blew me away how much you could do with so little — and how quietly, how cleanly, how perfectly.”
He launched Morgan Solar in 2007 after returning to Canada, determined to do what he could to make solar power “ubiquitous.” Initially, the company focused on making solar panels cheaper and more efficient, but improving panels felt like working on a “solved problem,” he says — the technology already existed.
When Canada announced its net-zero GHG goals, Morgan knew building managers would be looking for carbon-reduction solutions that could be mobilized quickly, easily and relatively cheaply. So he and his staff focused on products that could manage thermal load — and in the case of electricity-generating energy blinds, contribute to the power grid.
In addition to energy blinds, the company also offers solar-cell equipped exterior shades and slats, pergolas and other low-profile architectural features. Solar shades developed by the company were recently included in an ambitious renovation at the Ontario Association of Architects headquarters in Toronto. The project aimed to make the more than 30-year-old building carbon neutral and involved structural and mechanical changes that included improving insulation, installing a geothermal heating system and reconfiguring the office spaces inside.
The results show the difference that GHG-reducing technology can make, especially in retrofits. A post-renovation assessment showed a “substantial reduction” in net electricity usage, resulting in annual savings of $200,000 and 120 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. Electricity use has dropped by 85 percent, plug loads have been reduced by 65 percent and natural gas heating has been eliminated.
Despite the encouraging results, BGIS’s Rowlandson says widespread adoption of innovative climate-changing technology can be slow in the building sector. “We have to stop replacing like with like,” she says. “Too often, procurement people replace things with the same thing that was there before.”
Governments at all levels can encourage market adoption by acting as first customers for innovative new technology. But convincing procurement staff to make the leap can be a challenge, says Mike Layton, a former Toronto city councillor who helped develop the city’s climate action plan. Layton says he’s encouraged by the range of clean energy and GHG-reducing technology that exists — he has used them himself to cut emissions in his home. But administrators and city bureaucrats can be hesitant to try them.
“We have to get over the idea of status quo,” says Layton, who is now chief sustainability officer at York University. “It’s not that solutions don’t exist, but not everyone knows they exist or how to piece them together. But when you do, they can make a huge difference.”
And sometimes, that huge difference is as close as the nearest window. Morgan says 70 percent of a building’s thermal load can be traced back to how well its windows perform.
“There’s a lot a window can do,” he says. “And if Canada wants to be net zero by 2050, we don’t really have time to wait.”
Morgan Solar is one of eight companies in Mission from MaRS: Public Procurement, a special initiative that’s working to make it easier for communities to adopt climate solutions.
Photo illustration by Monica Guan