Salt Spring Flicks the Solar Switch

BY SEAN MCINTYRE -DRIFTWOOD STAFF

Nearly 150 people gathered at Gulf Islands Secondary School on Saturday afternoon to celebrate the transformation of a bright idea into the province’s seventh-largest solar array.

“This initiative truly has been a partnership and the school district looks forward not only to the incredible educational opportunities for scholarships but to the use of the array as a renewable energy teaching tool,” said schools superintendent Lisa Halstead. “Our students are our future and this project will make an ongoing difference, inspiring us to be the change we want to see and creating a low-carbon future.”

In less than a year, what has become the largest school-based photovoltaic system in B.C. went from an idea presented at a monthly school district meeting to a community-wide effort that stands to change the way islanders look at energy. “Our community here gets an A double plus for just creating one of the most unique educational and community-based renewable energy projects in the country,” said David Denning, a spokesperson for the Salt Spring Community Energy Group.

“This project represents our values,” he added “What we need is to change the culture and the only way to do that is through education, education that reaches all of us in the community and all of our students.”

The Community Energy Group generated momentum among local organizations, students, business owners and other island residents to raise $106,000 for the 84-panel solar array in fewer than nine months.   Nearly 60 per cent of the funding came from individual donations. Contributions from Bullfrog Power, the Gulf Islands   School District, the Salt Spring Foundation and in-kind services from island-based building professionals contributed much of the remaining 40 per cent. “I think it’s very much in the   Canadian grassroots tradition of ‘can do, will do, so let’s do it,’” Community Energy Group member Simon Wheeler told the crowd. “It was a team effort and   we are all proud to achieve that together.”

Wheeler named fellow group member Kjell Liem the project’s solar scholarship champion on behalf of everyone involved for his devotion to the project. Liem told participants the GISS project represents only the beginning of what can and must be done on the island.

Given that panels on the GISS   gymnasium will provide only   three per cent of the school’s   annual energy requirements, Liem said, there’s much more work ahead. The reality of solar, he added, requires going all in to reap big rewards. Saturday’s event featured site tours and two hours of songs, dancing and speeches from MLA Gary Holman, MP Elizabeth May and others. Musical inspiration was on tap from   eco-diva and event emcee Nomi Lyonns, Bill Henderson and school district students.

Even on a dreary January afternoon, the GISS panels were drawing a small but steady current of power into the school.   On a sunny day, the 21-kilowatt system produces enough power to light up the gym.

Energy costs saved by the school district will be converted into “solar scholarships.” The annual awards provide $2,000 to GISS grads who pursue post-secondary education in renewable energy or a related field. Since approximately 95 per cent of the electricity used in British Columbia is obtained from renewable hydro or wind   power, climate change crusader Guy Dauncey observed the GISS solar project won’t have a direct affect on GHG emissions and climate change. It does, however, outline how people can mobilize to change their energy future. “It is a powerful symbolic initiative,” said the founder of the   B.C. Sustainable Energy Association. “Our vision has to be so much bigger. As people have said, this is a small part of the solution. An online monitoring system at tinyurl.com/qaouxa2 has been set up to show visitors how much energy the panels produce.