Community Solar for the Gulf Islands

ISLAND TIDES – A solar panel is a beautiful thing. With no sound, moving parts, or impact on the environment, it quietly soaks up the sun and pumps out electricity. In goes sunlight and out comes the lifeblood of your light, heat, communication, and, if you’re lucky enough to own one, your electric vehicle too.

In an age when most of us depend on giant institutions for energy, this simple technology helps you break free. Just as a backyard garden gives you a local, green leg up on your food needs, a solar panel on the roof makes you an active player in meeting your energy needs. On islands where self-reliance is a shared value, these steps toward greener local autonomy are important.

Solar power offers three big benefits: clean green energy, local economic benefits, and energy cost control. Solar systems run cleanly and quietly without damaging the environment. Normally they come with a 25-year warranty, generating clean energy for decades.

Local solar arrays also help the local economy. Much of the money spent on solar power is for installation, meaning it creates jobs in the community, and the cash generated will likely circulate there. Estimates are that each megawatt of solar power creates up to 20 local jobs. That is a huge difference from energy dollars spent on fracking for gas or building huge dams for hydro megaprojects.

Solar also helps you control energy costs – studies show every kilowatt of solar you produce cuts your electric bill by 13%. Sunshine is free, meaning solar offers reliable energy at a predictable rate for decades. Every kilowatt you produce is a kilowatt you don’t have to buy from the utility at ever increasing rates.

Individual home solar installations can do all this, but they have some limitations, making community solar the next step in the energy revolution. It enables groups to share in developing local sites for the benefit of many. This makes a big difference, because many people interested in solar power lack either the finances or a suitably sunny site for their own installation. In fact, over half of US households do not have sites with sufficient availability of sunlight to warrant solar panels.

Community solar tackles the financial and site issues, providing three big benefits: equal access, affordability, and shared expertise. First, with home solar you need to win the solar lottery – the roof with excellent sun. But with a shared approach, the solar array goes where the best sun is. Where you live in the neighbourhood no longer matters. You benefit from your share of the array as if it were on your own roof. That means anyone with an electric bill – renter, condo owner, apartment dweller, or business without your own roof – you still qualify simply by participating.

Community solar also addresses the affordability issue. You don’t need a lot of money to buy into a shared solar site; you buy what you can afford, and benefit accordingly. In some models you don’t even need to buy, you just lease a panel or buy shares in output.

With community solar you also benefit from the expertise of others – there’s no need to know a lot about solar power to participate in a project. The group helps in choosing an optimal site, getting professional maintenance, and building at the most economical scale. As the group acquires expertise, so do you – you’re never on your own.

Equal access and affordability are especially important on islands like Salt Spring. Heavy forest cover limits the number of available sunny sites here. And where there is a good site, the owner may lack the financing or the energy consumption pattern required to make the project economically feasible under existing BC Hydro rates. By contrast, a community-based approach helps the most people tap the best sites. Still, BC Hydro’s rate design needs to change in order to make this a reality here.

In Nelson BC, the city-owned electric utility is demonstrating the possibilities by launching a pilot community solar project. Nelson Hydro general manager, Alex Love will be presenting their approach at the 2016 Community Energy Conference and Social on Salt Spring April 23rd. Also at this event, John Farrell, Energy Democracy Director at the Institute of Local Self Reliance, will be presenting by video the rapid development of shared solar in the United States.