All posts by Kjell

A Field Guide to Community Solar In British Columbia


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.

1. 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, Okanogan 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.

6. 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-op’s 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! -Kjell Liem, CEG

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.

We did it!

The Solar Scholarship project has now reached its funding goal!


And if you were in town last Saturday, you may have noticed large crates being lifted onto the GISS gym roof by Salt Spring Crane & Rigging. And if you guessed that these crates were full of solar panels, you would be right. We’re well on our way to the installation and implementation of the largest school-based solar photovoltaic array and the seventh-largest grid-tied solar installation in British Columbia!

It’s all thanks to you – a great community. Over 140 generous individuals, groups and businesses contributed during the campaign. Originally set at $60,000, we increased the fundraising goal to $63,000 once the technical team determined the gym roof could accommodate 84 panels – six more than originally planned. Businesses and service organizations that helped include 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. A well-deserved thank you to all!And we had some special help too. A matching fund created by Vince and Maggie Argiro doubled the value of donations made until Canada Day. Additional support was provided through the School District ‘s Carbon Neutral Capital Grant, the Salt Spring Foundation, and in-kind services provided by many professionals working on the project.With a total project cost of $106,000, additional funding came from a $20K matching grant from Bullfrog Power. Through their Bullfrog Builds Renewable Accelerator Program, they provide critical financial support for the development of new renewable energy projects across Canada.And hoisting the crates up onto the gym roof last Saturday would not have gone so smoothly were it not for the shipping and handling expertise of Ken Marr at Windsor Plywood.The next few weeks will see the panels installed with a monitoring system that will allow everyone to see how much energy the panels are producing in real-time. All will be revealed at our public launch scheduled for January 10th.

November Update

Have you driven by the GISS lately? Look over and you will see solar panels! 

Panel installation has started on the GISS gym roof. So far we have 38 panels in place, enough to generate over 9 kilowatts out of the planned 21 kW total. These panels are designed for rugged environments with minimal maintenance. Below we have Kjell Liem, Ron Watts and Will Andrews taking a breather from installing.


The SD64 school engineering team have also been hard at work installing the conduits and wiring to connect the solar array to the hydro grid: big thanks to Lane, Bud, Graham, and Tom for such great work.

In fact, so much progress has been made that we have planned the public launch for January 10th, 2015. Mark your calendars now and stay tuned for ‘the Big Switch’.

December Update

The array is now complete, the electrical inspection done and BCHydro has given us the permit to connect the system up to the grid. So we are on-line as of 17th December and supplying power to the school with any surplus being fed into the Salt Spring mains.  We are on the monitoring system so that the output will be viewable on the internet. We will post a message here when that happens.

Thanks and congratulations to all who made this community effort possible, we are planning a public launch event “Flick the Switch” on January 10th at the GISS multi-purpose room, all are invited.

This article was published (November 26, 2015) in ‘Island Tides’, an independent, regional newspaper distributing on the Canadian Gulf Islands, on Vancouver Island and, via the internet, worldwide.

Local low-impact energy news—schools lead the way

It’s been nearly a year since completion of the solar panel installation on the gym roof at Gulf Islands Secondary School. After a summer of glorious sunshine, it was time to check on how the system has performed compared with expectations, said Salt Spring Community Energy.

‘While the rated output of the solar array is 21 kilowatts (kW) we had expected small losses at various stages—the panels themselves, the wiring and inverters—to reduce the maximum power into the grid to about 17 kW on very sunny days. So how has it performed? Beyond expectations!

‘During May, June and July we regularly saw the output above 18 kW with some days over 19kW—a system efficiency of over 90% compared to the industry norm of 80%.

‘This is attributable to the care taken in the design and installation of the system.

‘By early October we had already surpassed our predicted annual output and a further 2,800 units are expected for the rest of this year. This great result means that the amount of money available for the winner of next year’s solar scholarship will be more than expected!

‘The system has also performed well operationally. It shut down automatically as expected for safety reasons during several BC Hydro power failures. When the power came back on, so did our system.

Pender School, Next Solar Project

Putting solar arrays on public buildings is a move that is gaining momentum. Pender Solar Initiative 2020 (PSI) is planning and fundraising for its next project, which involves a partnership with School District No64 to install approximately 120 solar panels on the southwest-facing roof of the Pender School.

This project is more than three times as large as the group’s successful first project, a 39-panel photovoltaic system on the roof of Pender’s Recycling Depot financed by the Nu-to-Yu and the CRD. That system was installed in March and has already generated more electricity than the depot uses in a year, meaning that the Pender Island Recycling Society will receive a cheque from BCHydro for the surplus energy generated.

The value of the electricity generated by the solar roof at the school will be used to fund student scholarships in sustainability-related programs and to purchase energy-related science equipment for the school.

Pender Solar Initiative 2020 has already raised more than $30,000, including a $15,000 matching grant from Bullfrog Power and generous donations from several enthusiastic supporters on Pender. Grant applications are in process, and each class at the school has been challenged to sponsor at least one panel. PSI 2020 also hopes many Pender residents and Pender School alumni will sponsor individual panels, possibly in honor of children, grandchildren, or other loved ones.

 In August at the Pender Fall Fair, young Nevan McClarty made an enthusiastic contribution of $4 to the Pender School solar roof project, which was subsequently topped up by a generous donor to enable the purchase of a panel.

At the launch of David Boyd’s new book The Optimistic Environmentalist, various donors, including the author and the owners of Pender’s Talisman Books, chipped in enough to sponsor two panels.

If you would like to support this project, we are requesting donations of $250 per solar panel (and feel free to sponsor as many as you like!). However, donations of any size will be gratefully received. Cheques should be made out to the Gulf Islands Education Trust Fund, and mailed to David Boyd at 1321 MacKinnon Road, Pender Island V0N 2M1. Please note on the cheque that it is for the Pender School Solar Roof Project. Donations for more than $50 will receive a charitable tax receipt. The goal is to have the system up and running by the end of the 2015/2016 school year.

Salt Spring Island school warms up to solar


Electrical engineer Will Andrew, left, installer Lane Gromme and project manager Kjell Liem install solar panels on the roof of Gulf Islands Secondary School. The 21-kilowatt project went live in December.   Photograph By Ron Watts, Photo courtesy of ronwattsphoto
Electrical engineer Will Andrew, left, installer Lane Gromme and project manager Kjell Liem install solar panels on the roof of Gulf Islands Secondary School. The 21-kilowatt project went live in December. Photograph By Ron Watts, Photo courtesy of ronwattsphoto


When a Salt Spring Island community group took on the task of bringing solar power to a local high school, it wasn’t just the students they hoped to reach.

“We wanted to show that the technology was mature and even a small community can implement it,” said Kjell Liem, project manager for the Salt Spring Community Energy Group.

The 84 solar photovoltaic panels covering the Gulf Islands Secondary School gym roof went live in December. It is the largest school-based solar array in B.C., according to B.C. Hydro, and the seventh largest overall.

Although the 21-kilowatt project will cover only a portion of the school’s electricity needs, the money the school saves on its energy bill will support an annual $2,000 scholarship for a graduating student planning to study renewable energy or climate change.

The energy saved is roughly equivalent to the typical consumption of two single-family homes, Liem said.

“We were mostly interested in the educational opportunities of something that would benefit the kids, because they’re the ones who ultimately have to respond to climate change,” he said.

The learning opportunity goes beyond the scholarship, said School District 64 superintendent Lisa Halstead.

“I think it’s an absolutely terrific project,” Halstead said. “Not only does it provide energy and scholarships for our students, but we can also use it as a teaching tool in the district.”

School principal Lyall Ruehlen said it’s one of several projects at the school encouraging sustainability. The school has a greenhouse, as well as a “living lettuce wall” that grows produce for the cafeteria’s salad bar.

Working with the school’s chef in the greenhouse is an elective program, he said.

While students in the school’s environmental club were involved in crafting the initial solar proposal to the school board and educating the rest of the school about the project, others became interested as they saw the panels being installed.

“It really happened when you could see our maintenance personnel, staff members and groups of students actually helping out. That’s when other students would get interested — ‘Hey, what’s so-and-so doing over there?’ ” Ruehlen said. “The days would go by and you’d actually start to see progress.”

The $100,000 project was funded through donations, grants and other contributions, including $5,000 from the Salt Spring Island Foundation, $20,000 from Bullfrog Power and $9,700 from the Carbon Neutral Capital Program. Other donors include Windsor Plywood, the local Lions Club and the Raging Grannies.

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