The Power of Community Solar
In 2014, the Gulf Islands Secondary School on Saltspring Island installed 84 solar photovoltaic panels on their roof. It wasn’t enough to power the entire school, but it did save them $2,000 a year on their electricity bill, which they used to create an annual scholarship for graduating students planning to study renewable energy or climate change.
Because they planned to give away the earnings as scholarships, the 21-kilowatt project became a completely charitable venture and was financed through fundraising and grants. At the time, it was the largest school-based solar installation in BC, and the seventh-largest project overall in the province.
When my dad moved to the Gulf Islands he had one thing in mind: finding a house with a roof slanted towards the sun. He was determined to install solar panels that would fully power his home and electric car. He found the perfect house, mounted solar panels to the roof and some on the ground below, and now generates so much power that he feeds back additional energy into the grid and is compensated for it.
My dad lucked out. For one, not everyone receives enough sunlight to warrant installing solar or can afford the costs of buying their own panels. This is where community solar comes in.
Community solar farms or gardens allow people who don’t have the space, knowledge, or money for private solar to buy or lease panels in a pooled solar array. Investors then receive the money made from the energy produced by their portion of the panels. This means that people can buy as many or as few panels as they want and the solar park can be placed in an area in the community that is ideal for solar.
The projects don’t always have to be profit-driven though. In many cases, like the high school on Saltspring, solar is installed to help the community as a whole. Through fundraising, grants, and government funding, solar can be installed on buildings like community halls, schools, or recycling centres to help offset their electricity bills, make a commitment to sustainability, and instill a sense of pride.
Last year, Lasqueti Island, one of the Northern Gulf Islands with a population of just 425, won Clean Energy BC’s award for Community of the Year for installing solar panels to run their school and health centre. On Pender Island in the Southern Gulf Islands, their recycling depo and school both house solar arrays.
It’s easy to dismiss the islanders as hippies. Many of their inhabitants are wealthy, retired professionals with an interest in environmentalism and a lot of time and money on their hands. But still, their community solar projects and proposals shouldn’t be shrugged off by the rest of us as an anomaly. If small communities can band together to raise the money and get the funding to make solar a reality and take local control of their energy, why can’t we?