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A Field Guide to Community Solar in BC

Kjell Liem - Guest Writer
Thursday, August 4, 2016

It’s easy to understand why BC communities love solar energy: it’s a local solution to our energy needs, keeps valuable energy dollars in the community, and creates much need employment when traditional areas of the economy are struggling.

In the last couple of years there have been different styles of community projects - most take advantage of the excellent Net Metering program RS 1289 offered by BC Hydro. The following is an attempt to categorize, in a broad way, several models that have been used to get those panels installed and producing for the public’s benefit.

tsou-ke.jpg1. Municipal ownership: The first solar installation to qualify for BC Hydro’s Standing Offer Program was Kimberly's Sun Mine, a 1MW installation built on a retired mine site in Southeastern BC. The project has the landbase to expand to 20MW which makes it a project to watch. Some great holistic thinking here as the project used the electrical infrastructure from the mine to connect to the grid. A solar array on your local firehall also fits this model. But not all communities are municipalities:  a good example of a non-municipal local project is T’Sou-ke Nation’s groundbreaking installation in 2009. Off-grid Lasqueti Island operates a solar based micro grid for it's health clinic and school. The Solar Colwood program is another example of a local government getting behind solar – qualifying as a community effort, but with federal funding. While not government owned, Okanagan College has an impressive array showing just what can be done on a large roof. I think there is a solar parking canopy at The British Columbia Institute of Technology, but I’m unable to find the sources online just now.

2. Bulk purchases programs have taken place in the Cowichan Valley, Galiano, Saltspring Island and other communities like Squamish and the Sunshine Coast are rumored to be following suit. GabEnergy's model is like a bulk purchase, giving the consumer access to below retail pricing on equipment. There was a mention of the bulk purchase concept in a Net Metering paper called Clean Power at Home, by Suzuki Foundation as early as 1999.

3. Solar Scholarship: exemplified by the Solar Scholarship project on Saltspring Island, purely charitable projects have been developed at schools in the province, including a 105 panel installation getting soon to come online at Pender Island Elementary. The now defunct Solar for Schools program could fit this model, it included the financial support of the provincial government until the program was retired. Okanagan College in Kelowna doesn’t provide a scholarship with the electricity revenue, but it demonstrates one way rooftops in BC can be put to work.

4. Solar on Strata: Any commonly owned building; your clubhouse, a strata condominium, may be feasible if it on the residential conservation rate RS 1101 . While the first examples of this model were developed in the lower mainland by Vancouver Renewable Energy (VREC), a recent, and well documented, example in Victoria was developed by Bruce Mackenzie, a founder of the BCSEA.

5. Solar Shares: Vancouver Renewable Energy Co-operative, a worker owned co-op has developed Solshare an incorporated company offering class C2 investment shares in a leasing program available province wide. The host sites' sign a lease agreement, paying a small premium for the solar electricity, but this is offset by lower electricity price increases in future years.

shutterstock_76133296.jpg6. Solar Garden [also know as Community Net Metering]: recently fully funded by the customers of Nelson Hydro this project is the first of it's kind in Canada. It will see the production from a managed solar installation credited to individual electricity accounts in proportion to the number of panels that customers have purchased. A minimum level of participation by the utility is needed to arrange the billing software.

7. Solar Co-ops are rumored to exist in Ontario where there is a generous feed in tariff. Also known as a producers Co-op, there has been a lot of interest in this model, especially with BC Hydro's new Micro-Standing Offer Program, which aims to reduce interconnection costs for community projects. Many folks are watching this development closely to see what kind of feasibility there is for a solar so-op, given the rates structures and other programs offered by BC Hydro. The Peace Energy Co-op got an early start with their involvement in the Bear Mountain wind development in the north east of the province. They are now providing professional solar installation. There are some worker’s co-ops notably Viridian energy on Vancouver Island, and VREC in Vancouver.

No doubt I’ve overlooked some excellent projects. As you can imagine each model has it's strengths and weaknesses. Bulk purchase programs for example, can be a wild beast, driven by good intentions, some healthy ambition, and a steep learning curve. They can also be perfected – and give folks access to the technology. But many things are common to all. Solar installations need a quality host site to realize excellent production. They need to be away from the shade so the panels can do what they were made to do, turn light into electricity. Ownership and maintenance concerns need to be addressed. Would you like to own some panels in your neighbour sunny yard? What happens if you share their panels and then they decide to sell their property and move back east? It helps if the project economics work: price signals can make it easier to fund. Are regulatory issues to consider? Maybe what you really want is to start a utility. Well, not everyone is allowed: the electricity business is highly regulated so you'd better be a municipality or a regional district to go there. What about the electrical code? Not even red seal electricians understand much of what is written in those big rule books. And how about the engineering requirements for public buildings? Where do you start? Where will you get solid direction for your community dream project? Ah, community solar, a fine challenge, and not for the faint of heart!

 

About the Author

This article was contributed by Saltspring Islander and BCSEA Member Kjell Liem. Check out his blog posts here!