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Solar Pride on Salt Spring’s School

It was a wet, overcast Saturday in January when two hundred people assembled in the school hall on Salt Spring Island to celebrate “flicking the switch” on the brand new 84-panel, 21-kilowatt solar PV system on the roof of the Gulf Islands Secondary School (GISS) gym.

The system will generate 23,000 kWh a year, a small fraction of the power the school uses, but the energy generated by the effort that went into organizing and fundraising will inspire Salt Springers to new heights for years to come.

The idea was dreamed up twelve months earlier by two members of Salt Spring’s Community Energy Group, an offshoot of Transition Salt Spring, which grew out of many years of climate and energy engagement by islanders. The team included competent solar professionals, and a champion to hold it all together.

Be Committed

Lesson #1: Be committed. Anyone can do this, but it helps to have a committed team of motivated and knowledgable volunteers.

The first challenge was to get community buy-in. When members of the Energy Group found super-motivated students who went with them to the District 64 School Board and told them why it mattered so much, the School Board gave the project 100% support. In the months that followed the active support of the school board, school electrician, accounts department, building supervisors and administrators went far beyond the call of duty.

Be Collaborative

Lesson #2: Be collaborative. Collaborative trust is an essential ingredient when working on a complex project like this.

The next challenge was the decision: are we really going to do this? This is where the initiative went from a ‘Can Do?’ to a ‘Will Do,’ and then a ‘Let’s Do It!’ Project. The 12-member Community Energy Group brought together skills and experience including off-the-grid living, solar energy systems, engineering, education, community organization and photography. Everyone contributed, with the project being managed by a dedicated renewable energy worker, Kjell Liem.

Be Bold

Lesson #3: Be bold. As the Scottish Himalayan explorer E.H. Murray said, ‘Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.'

The next challenge was the cost: how to raise $63,000 in community donations to pay for the installation? That’s a lot of money for a small community. And here’s the Salt Spring genius. The Community Energy Group worked out an arrangement with the School District to put the money saved by feeding solar energy into the grid into a Solar Scholarship program for GISS graduates who want to pursue an education related to renewable energy or climate change. This will generate $2000 or more a year for the lifetime of the solar array (30 years or so). Donations were directed into an educational trust fund, and charitable status was won.

Be Smart

Lesson #4: Be Smart. Invent new rules as needed.

As the fundraising campaign swung into full gear its leaders could be seen around Ganges wearing solar mortarboards - those funny flat scholars’ hats fitted out with solar PV tops to explain the Solar Scholarship fund. Altogether, 140 generous individuals, groups and businesses contributed to the campaign, including Pharmasave, Windsor Plywood, Slegg Lumber, Mouat’s, Country Grocer, Thrifty’s, the Lions Club, the Mauro Family Foundation, the Saanich Gulf Islands Green Party, the local NDP Club, the 2014 GISS Reunion, the Only Planet Cabaret, the Gulf Islands Retired Teachers Association, the Salt Spring Trail and Nature Club, and the Raging Grannies. Country Grocer was competing with Thrifty Foods and the Greens were competing with the NDP - and also with the Liberals. Everyone was at it.

A 50:50 matching grant from two supporters for donations received before Canada Day doubled the value of early donations. Additional support came from the School District’s Carbon Neutral Capital Grant, the Salt Spring Foundation, and in-kind services by people working on the project. A final $20,000 grant from Bullfrog Power topped up the fundraising to the $106,000 total budget, which includes the solar array, an educational initiative to do renewable energy education throughout the district, and implementing electric vehicle charging capacity in the school district.

The atmosphere in the hall was celebratory, with music, dance and singing, and the question in the air was “what next?” The Solar Scholarship Project is a small but tangible response to the threat of climate change, but it is also much more. Around the community, conversations about climate change, solar energy and carbon footprints have become a daily norm, rather than an occasional side-topic. People are talking about and buying electric cars, plugging EVs into solar systems, reducing their travel, and looking into solar systems for their homes. The tide of change is rolling, and I wouldn’t lose any money on a bet that whatever they pull out of their hat next, they won’t disappoint.

Lesson #5: Know how to celebrate!

Transition Salt Spring Community Energy Group: http://saltspringcommunityenergy.com