innovators | alex winch
an engineer-turned-hedge Fund manager
changes the game in water heating. by SETH MASIA
Alex Winch grew up in Burlington, a suburb of Hamilton, Ontar- io. In high school, at
Hillfield Stranthallen College in
Hamilton, he won a science-fair
prize with a computer-assisted
laser micrometer based on an
old Apple II computer — the
machine accurately measured
film thickness. He graduated in
1985 from Queen’s University,
in Kingston at the opposite end
of Lake Ontario, with a degree
in mechanical and nuclear engineering. You’d think he’d be
perfectly equipped to create a
breakthrough in thin-film photovoltaics (PV).
Instead, he went to work
for a stockbroker, training as a
research analyst in the tech sector. By 1989 he was certified as
a financial adviser and went out
on his own, selling research on
Canadian stocks to Wall Street
firms. He launched his own
hedge fund, specializing in short
selling, and in 1993 opened an
office in New York. He did well,
especially after the stock market crash of February 1994, and
at the end of 1995 he felt rich
enough. At 31, he retired from
the hedge fund business.
Winch put a substantial investment into
International Thunderbird Gaming, a Canadian
casino operation. Dissatisfied with the company’s
performance, and especially with management’s
response to stockholder complaints, he led a
proxy fight, assumed the chairmanship, reformed
management, and grew the company to 16 casino
resorts in India, the Philippines, Central America
and Peru. In 2002 he retired again.
Winch was ready to be an engineer again.
He had his eye on solar and understood the difference between 12 percent efficiency with PV
Alex Winch on the roof of the original Beach Solar Laundromat. He’ll double the number of collectors this summer.
18 July/August 2011 SOLAR TODAY solartoday.org
Seth Masia ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is deputy editor
of SOLAR TODA Y.
modules and 70 percent efficiency with water-heating collectors. He had built a summer-only
thermosiphon system on a cabin at Bigwind Lake,
about 125 miles (200 km) north of Toronto. That
added about 40 percent to the summer season.
The next logical step would be a small business using a lot of hot water: a laundromat. He
contracted with Bob Swartman of Solcan in
London, Ontario, who designed a closed-loop
glycol system with eight collectors capable of
absorbing about 55,000 British thermal units per
hour — roughly 16 kilowatts. That was enough
to displace about 50 percent of the natural gas
used to run 21 washing machines. The Beach
Solar Laundromat opened that fall on Queen
Street near downtown Toronto.
Winch learned a few things
about self-service laundry. There
were cycles to customer traffic
that affected system design. For
instance, the laundromat was
located two blocks from Lake
Ontario, and on a hot summer
day, when solar gain peaked,
no one wanted to do laundry:
Customers went to the beach.
The storage tank could overheat.
Year-round, customers wanted
to do their own laundry during
evening hours. To drive business when the sun is high, he
opened the premises to a team
of ladies who offered a fluff-and-fold service. Working customers
dropped their laundry off in the
morning and picked it up on
their way home.
“By the summer of 2004 I
knew I could generate utility-scale heat on someone else’s
roof,” Winch said.
beach soLar Laun Dromat
Winch founded Mondial
Solar “to mediate between the
building owner and panel owner
— the basic idea was capital
investment in a utility asset,” he
said. “We called it a solar energy
generation sale proposal.”
In 2006, he borrowed the
term power purchase agree-
ment (PPA), which more concisely described
what Mondial was doing: matching hot-water
clients with investors who wanted a predictable
cash flow. He was selling the idea to both sides
of the contract.
The first contract was for a social housing
project funded by the city of Toronto through its
Toronto Community Housing Corp. Fifty shareholders subscribed to buy and build a system of
60 panels, pumping hot water to 110 apartments.
The valves opened in November 2006.
Similar projects followed, five in all, all serving
large buildings. The final one was the Hospital
for Sick Children in Toronto, where 92 panels
provide about 9 percent of the hot water for an