Story and photos by Michelle Annette Tremblay
I spent a lot of time during the August eclipse learning about solar systems. But not the cosmic variety. Instead I got a VIP pass to the brain of a local renewable-energy expert, who some might call North Hastings’ very own Elon Musk. And he had a lot to say about what’s coming up in the world of renewable energy.
At just 42, Michele Gallo is a Master Electrician, Licensed Solar Electrician and Industrial Millwright Mechanic, with an extensive background in electro-mechanical engineering, automation and robotics. After graduating from York University, he worked for IBM’s Celestica and continued studying at Centennial, Humber and George Brown Colleges in Toronto. Gallo has played a key role in developing and scaling up Canada's green energy economy, including helping to lead the procurement and installation of a $30-million manufacturing line for IBM Canada. His multi-discipline knowledge allows him to be inventive and see solutions that may be inaccessible to others.
Through his company, Gallo-Teck, the entrepreneur designs and installs automated renewable energy systems and collaborates with some of the biggest names in the industry. What does all that mean in layman's terms? Basically, Michele got into renewable energy right at the cusp 18 years ago and has been on the cutting edge ever since, constantly upping his game with new skills, knowledge and groovy innovations.
Like his solar-powered pontoon boat. As far as he knows, it’s the only one like it in the world.
“With vehicles it’s always a space issue,” says Gallo. “There are great big yachts that are solar powered, because they have enough space for the solar panels and the battery packs, but I don’t think there’s anything smaller on the market.”
He explains that a pontoon boat is ideal for fitting with solar because of its larger size. The battery packs can be stowed out of sight under the seats, and even with the solar panels on board, there’s still room for about a dozen people. And it has enough power for tubing!
I had no idea battery packs take up so much room. As a solar newbie I had a ton of questions, and Michele was more than happy to wax poetic about his favorite subject, even inviting me to his home for a tour. The impressive waterfront residence is 100 percent off grid, though you’d never know it at first glance.
When I arrive, Michele’s wife, Madonna Gallo and their daughters are playing in the front yard with gymnastics ribbons. Silhouetted by the late afternoon sun, they jump and spin, ribbons fluttering around them like halos of pink light. The lake sparkles behind them. It’s an idyllic sight.
The house is large and stately behind them, with formidable architecture, and huge windows. I am struck by the swings incorporated into the patio cover, the stone work and the natural materials.
Madonna strolls over, relaxed in yoga attire, and welcomes me warmly with a hug. Though she works in Public Relations, she is no stranger to her husband’s alternative energy industry. In fact, she grew up in an off-grid home, not far from where she lives now. She has spent her whole life living off grid, except for a 15-year stint during which she and Michele lived in Toronto while developing their careers. Once they were established, they decided they wanted to leave the city in favour of wide open spaces where they could put down roots and be self-sufficient.
“The main thing I wanted was to live off-grid on an acreage with clean water. My parents have acreage in the Hamilton area, which is nice, but there’s no supply of clean water nearby.
The Gallos started their property search in the Muskokas, but eventually ended up looking around the Bancroft and Maynooth area.
“We looked at tons of properties, walking hundreds of acres to find the right place to build,” admits Michele. In the end, it took four years before the perfect piece of land came on the market. But it was winter, and covered in snow. Still, the real estate listing had everything the Gallos were looking for: a great location close to Bancroft, ample space, privacy, a level area for building, and a beautiful waterfront. It was too good to pass up.
“The sale closed on Christmas Eve, site unseen,” recalls Madonna. “It was a bit of a risk to buy an acreage covered in snow. But we felt confident after talking to the neighbours that it was the right spot for us. And in the spring when the snow melted, it was even better than we could have imagined.”
“All of this was covered in trees,” Michele says, motioning to the house and front yard. Of course the first step was to clear the building area. “I took a year off work and we built the house ourselves: Madonna, my father-in-law, my brother, and my brother-in-law. We had a couple of contractors for concrete and stone work, and some of the drywall, but everything else we did ourselves.”
Spinning in the distance is the wind turbine that powers the house along with the help of a few arrays of solar panels. The idea is that the house is powered by solar energy when the weather is pleasant and sunny, and by wind when the weather is overcast and windy. On average, the Gallo house uses about 20 kilowatts of energy per day. On a sunny day, that amount of solar energy can be collected and stored in as little as an hour and a half.
Inside, the home features all the comforts of a traditional dwelling, and then some. The bright and spacious kitchen (with the nicest island I’ve ever seen, by the way) has all the regular appliances: big stainless steel fridge, stove, dish washer and espresso machine. Throughout the house there are radiant-heated floors, a contemporary laundry room, computers, wi-fi, entertainment systems, central vac, and of course Michele’s workshop and research and development lab with all manner of equipment. You name it, it’s there. And it all runs completely off renewable energy.
“Off-grid homes are becoming more mainstream now,” says Madonna, explaining further that Michele often shows their own home to prospective clients as an example of an off-grid system that has plenty of power.
“It used to be that alternative-energy attracted certain types -- environmentalists, hippies, homesteaders... There was this idea that off-grid meant a rustic cabin in the woods somewhere. And for some people that’s exactly what they want.”
Madonna herself had a happy childhood in the cabin-in-the-woods archetypal off-grid home, living with limited access to electricity. For her, it was always normal to be hyper-aware of how much energy was being produced and consumed. She grew up immersed in the natural world. It was normal and comfortable to go without certain comforts and conveniences.
“But now, thankfully, off-grid homes are having wider appeal,” she says as she munches on a fresh peach. It’s coming up on dinner time, and she is puttering around the kitchen as we all chat. As she collects flour and other ingredients for pizza crust, I admire the wooden cabinets, and the stairs to the right carved out of a hundred-year oak.
“And not just homes,” adds Michele. “We actually just finished up a project in Orillia that’s an auto shop. They use a lot of power. The hydro bill used to be $2000/month. Now it’s nothing.”
The Gallos show me a panel on the wall that looks much like a digital thermostat. Instead of displaying the temperature though, the screen show how much energy is currently being produced, and how much is being consumed.
“Look here,” says Michele, pointing. “Right now you can see our system is in float, which means we’re making power but it’s not being stored because all the batteries are full. This is the perfect time to do laundry.”
Whereas people on a traditional Hydro One system often save laundry for the evening when electricity rates are lower, those living off-grid do the opposite. On a bright sunny day, so much energy is produced that a lot of it goes to waste because the batteries fill up within a couple hours. So it’s a perfect time to run appliances to use up as much of that sunlight as possible.
Michele gets excited thinking about ways to increase efficiency. For example, when his solar powered boat’s batteries get full, any extra energy is automatically re-routed to the house. He has also rigged his solar system to divert extra energy that would otherwise be lost to his hot water tank. And it’s all automated.
“We have just one circulating pump for our radiant flooring, and zone valves all through the house,” explains Michele as he supervises his daughters dressing the pizza with fresh veggies. “A lot of other people put in pumps for every zone. We put in zone valves instead, that are automated to turn on and off as needed. It takes a fair amount of energy to get going, but once it’s going a vacuum is created, and the circulation continues with very high efficiency.”
He goes on to explain that even though he placed his solar array away from the house, which would usually lead to voltage-loss, his system is highly efficient.
“I like to bring it in at a high voltage so it can come from more of a distance. So our power comes in from the solar array, at 600 volts, and then we step it down to the charging voltage. It’s so simple. I don’t know why other people aren’t doing it.”
Another option for those wanting an alternative-energy home is what Michele refers to as grid-tie. Being off-grid completely is exactly what it sounds like: you’re responsible for all your own power, usually with a generator as back up. But grid-tie means you have an alternative-energy system and Hydro One. In this scenario, any excess energy you generate is fed back to Hydro One as a credit, which you can then draw from when needed.
“There’s nothing better than pulling a full home like this off the grid,” says Michele with a wide grin. “I like to make a big production for homeowners who have been on the grid. I flip this switch and hydro goes off, then flip this switch and the power comes on. The feeling that comes out of that is amazing.”
Michele's mother deserves a lot of credit for his successes, he says. He hated school growing up, and would rather spend his time building thing and taking things apart.
“I was a D student,” admits Michele. “I sucked at math. All I wanted to do was play sports and work on cars and stereos. I wanted to be a mechanic. But thankfully, my mom applied for universities for me, without me even knowing, and pushed me to work harder.
Over time, the budding-engineer became more studious, and after university, when he was in college, he started making friends with ‘the smart kids.’ This made all the difference. Michele and his study-mates, from all around the world, inspired and pushed each other. They helped each other understand concepts by breaking them down in different ways. Now school wasn’t just an obligation, it was a passion.
“I’m the guy people come to when they’ve been told something can’t be done. I can always figure something out.”
The advancements and efficiencies in renewable-energy are only going to get better as the technology advances. When I ask Michele which advancements he’s looking forward to, he gets positively giddy.
“The Tesla solar tiles are exciting! But they’re not cost effective yet,” he explains. “They will be, though.” As the systems become more popular and ubiquitous, manufacturing will become streamlined and less expensive. “They’re not as efficient as regular solar panels, but they’re only going to get better.”
Electric cars will become more common, too, says Michele. “The technology isn’t that complicated. It’s the self-driving that’s complicated. The electric motor is actually kind of simple.”
But what he’s most excited about is continuing down the path he and Madonna have already started. Now that their solar and wind systems are fully operational, they’re planning on installing a water turbine, also known as a micro-hydro system, at the back of their property. The advantage of water turbines is that they produce all the time, regardless of the weather or season.
“The trail is cleared and ready for the cable,” says Michele. “I just haven’t had time to put it in yet. I’m so busy working on other people’s installations that I barely have time to work on my own.”
This is another reason why the Gallos are happy to be in North Hastings. They could have stayed in the city, and would have made significantly higher incomes. Michele easily could have hired more people and expanded Gallo-Teck. They’re here for the lifestyle though.
“The majority of my clients are within an hour of my home. I don’t want to spend all my time traveling,” admits Michele. “And if one of my clients’ systems goes down, I want to be close by so I can service it and get it back online immediately.”
One of Michele’s furthest clients came as a complete surprise.
“I got a call, and the guy says, ‘I’m the prince of Dubai, and I want you to send me one of your speedware consoles.’” Speedware is Gallo’s other business. He designs and manufactures control panels for race-cars.
“He said, ‘give me your bank details so I can send you the money.’ I thought it was a joke or a scam, so I hung up on him. He called me back, asking ‘what are you doing? Why’d you hang up?’ Then he sent me an email, and I went to the bank with it and asked, ‘Is this for real?’ And it was! Then he says, ‘I want three of them, and I want you to Fed Ex it to Dubai tomorrow.’ It cost $3,000 just to Fed Ex this guy.”
We all have a good laugh, and Madonna pulls the pizza out of the oven. It smells heavenly.
“Can we eat on the boat?” asks one of the girls, leaping around the kitchen excitedly. “And then go swimming after?”
Michele and Madonna say yes, and we all walk outside to the waterfront, pizza and juice in hand. There are extra life-jackets scattered around for the frequent family and friends that come to visit. By now I’m fairly convinced that I’d like a solar-system of my own. And maybe a lake.
“We can retro-fit any house to renewable-energy,” Michele assures me. The best systems are priced above $30,000, he says, but he’s always happy to work with people with a smaller budget because there are ways to start small and then expand over time.
His biggest piece of advice is to do careful research and not to rush into a bargain. He’s seen a lot of people invest in a lower-cost system thinking they can upgrade later, but then realize their system isn’t as easy to expand as they thought, and it ultimately ends up costing more.
“High end systems are the most reliable,” he says. “That’s what we pride ourselves on, high-end, reliable, turn-key energy systems.”
As I leave, I can see the Gallo family, dappled in sun on their pontoon boat, laughing and munching on pizza as they lazily circle the lake. It’s almost too perfect. Instead of thinking of my own house, with its too-large utility bill, I decide to just soak it all in. The commitment. The vision. The drive. The innovation. If this is the future, it is bright.