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Cowichan Solar Group Achieves Astonishing Price Breakthrough

The Power of Cooperative Bulk-Buying

It’s known as “the warm land”, and as soon as you get off the highway Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley certainly has the feeling of pleasant summer warmth, filled with agricultural fecundity. It was the Coast Salish Cowichan people who gave it the name - that’s what cowichan means in the Hul’q’umi’num language.

So solar energy lies deep in the heritage of the valley, and maybe its appropriate that British Columbia’s first solar bulk buy has sprung unto life here, and is pioneering a new approach to solar installations.

Peter Nix—who calls himself a Cowichan carbon-buster—started pondering the possibility in May, so he was ready to leap when the opportunity arose to place a bulk order for 720 solar panels, totaling 200 kilowatts. A large project had fallen through, and the panels were available at 72 cents a watt, much less than the market norm of $1.00 a watt for solar PV of this quality.

Peter is a biologist who used to work—for his sins—in the Alberta Tar Sands, helping Suncor reclaim its ravaged lands. When he submitted a mine-closure report laying out the many difficulties of achieving this goal, only to see it edited with the statement that “the reclamation of oil sands lands will succeed,” which he knew to be unprovable using science, Peter knew he could no longer be a team player, and it was time to quit.

Carbon-Busting

Since becoming a carbon-buster, driven by a passionate anger about the climate emergency and what it will mean for his children and grandchildren, Peter has been arrested when he and thirteen others stopped a coal train exporting US coal through British Columbia; lobbied the US Senate and Congress for a carbon fee and dividend in Washington DC with the Citizens Climate Lobby; organized a solar hot water bulk buy; and joined the People’s Climate March in New York in September.

With the promise of 720 cut-price solar panels, Peter got on the phone to his carbon-buster network and within a week 30 people had given him $125,000 in cheques. He had no formal organization, no treasurer, and no idea where he could even store the panels when they arrived, but he was working with good people.

The panels were ordered by the Viridian Energy Cooperative, a workers’ coop of five licensed plumbers, electricians and engineers based in the Cowichan Valley who offer a renewable energy design and consulting service, whose vision is “to contribute to a world where clean, renewable energy is the established method for powering energy efficient, environmentally friendly, healthy and resilient communities.”

Among the Coop’s members is Eric Smiley, who used to teach courses on solar energy at BCIT, who has coordinated and taught in Vancouver Island University’s Green Building and Renewable Energy Technology Diploma, and is among the best-informed people on solar in the province.

Mike Isbrucker, of Alternative Electric in Duncan BC has partnered with Viridian to coordinate many of the details and some of the installations. Mike also brings years of solar PV installation experience and contacts, rounding out the expertise and making this a truly cooperative venture.

The panels are top quality poly-crystalline, made in China by Canadian Solar, one of the world’s largest and most successful solar energy firms, with annual revenue closing in on $3-billion, built by the visionary Canadian engineer, Shawn Qu, starting in 2001. In 2013, the company manufactured almost 2 gigawatts of solar PV, enough to cover half a million homes with 4 kw systems.

$3.00 to 3.15 a Watt Installed Price

Eric has done the math for Peter’s bulk buy, and using a “reasonable case”, assuming a 5% shading loss and an increase in BC Hydro rates continuing at 3% a year after the announced 28% price increase over the next five years, the installed price comes to $3.15 a watt, with some easier installs coming in at near $3.00. That’s quite a stunning reduction from the market average of $4 a watt, or $3.50 for a group of homeowners who contact a company at the same time seeking a coordinated install.

To put that in context, $4 a watt is a 100-fold drop in price since 1980. The “Solar Tsunami,” as I like to call it, is hitting the world in waves, and this may be the first sign that it is reaching BC’s shores.

Financially, when Eric Smiley crunched the numbers he calculated that members of the buyers’ club will see a long-term profit over 25 years of $3,650, giving an internal rate of return at 1.6%, and an equivalent GIC rate of 2.0%. The actual install costs are coming in cheaper than expected, however, so the financial returns are going to be higher. 

The panels arrive next week, and most of the 30 net-metered installs will be done by Viridian and Alternative Electric, averaging 3 kw per home, with a few being done by do-it-yourselfers. By November, we should start to see the photos pouring in from the proud solar owners.

A 50 kw Commercial-Scale Solar Farm

Peter has bigger plans, however. He is buying 200 of the panels himself to install a 50 kw commercial-scale solar farm in his own back yard, to create a focus where people can learn about solar energy and get inspired, and to make the business case for installing solar panels.

And that’s just the beginning. He and his group are exploring the options of setting up a permanent Solar Cooperative, or joining the existing Cowichan Energy Alternatives. Having helped produce North Cowichan’s award-winning Climate Action and Energy Plan, he wants to lobby the municipality to set up its own renewable energy utility, and to assist people to buy and install local renewable energy systems. And why stop there? He sees the whole of Vancouver Island as being full of solar opportunity.

To wind this up, last night I attended a community meeting on solar energy in the Yellow Point area east of Ladysmith, where I now live. The hall was packed with 85 people, all keen to learn about solar and the possibility to reduce their BC Hydro bills by producing their own power. For a very small rural community, this was a very big turnout.

Peter Nix presented his solar bulk buy ideas, a local installer talked about the importance of reducing energy demand before buying solar, and Dave Neads from Gabriola Island told us how their non-profit, GabEnergy, is assisting Gabriola residents to source, install and commission their own solar PV systems for an even lower price.

How low? To answer to this question, we’ll have to wait until I visit Dave on Gabriola, and dig into their work. Is on-the-ground community organizing like this the key to a solar breakthrough in British Columbia? Is so, BC’s Solar Tsunami might be arriving a lot sooner than I thought it would.

So all credit to the Cowichan Solar Bulk-Buy group for their astonishing pioneering work!