News

Salt Spring's 'Solar high' gets power, and a scholarship, from sun

solar-high-school-full-width-people.jpg
Ron Watts, Kjell Liem and Will Andrews pose in front of the 84 solar panels on the gym roof of Gulf Islands Secondary School.

Putting energy savings into scholarship key to fundraising for solar panels

An array of 84 solar photovoltaic panels on the gym roof of Gulf Islands Secondary School isn't just helping power the school. It's powering advanced education in the form of an annual $2,000 scholarship.

And that's not in any way just a feel-good by-product of the 21-kilowatt solar power project. It's what sets the project apart, and is arguably what made the whole thing possible.

"Usually what you see in community solar is people wanting to invest and see a return on their investment," says Kjell Liem, a project manager with what became known as the 'Solar High' project. "This idea to kind of give away all the profits in scholarships simplified all the legal and accounting hassles. And it turned it into a pure charitable venture, which really resonated with people."

Reaching the project target of $63,000 got a whole lot easier for the Salt Spring Community Energy Group once the project earned charitable status through the sponsorship initiative. The project hit its fundraising target, grants and other contributions took the total to over $100,000, and the solar array went live in December, 2014.

"It's just one of those projects that, for some reason, people get behind," says Liem. "Even though there can be a lot of controversy in a small community, this one seemed to sail by without any."

Solar power will meet just a small fraction of school's electricity needs

A partnership between the Salt Spring Community Energy Group and School District 64, the array is the largest school-based solar array in B.C., and the seventh largest solar array in B.C. But even on a clear summer day, when the solar array is producing at its peak and the school's power needs are minimal, it's unlikely that the PV panels will supply enough to power Gulf Islands Secondary School.

A conservative estimate for annual electricity production for the project is 23,000 kWh, which is expected to save the school about $2,000 annually in energy costs. Those savings will all go into a trust fund to fuel a scholarship each year of $2,000 or more for the life of the solar array, which should last 25 to 30 years.

The scholarship will go to GISS students, either for academic studies or for trades training related to sustainable technologies.

"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 at the project's official opening celebration on January 7, 2015. "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."

From an idea, to producing power, in less than a year

Renewable power may seem about as tough a sell on Salt Spring as a pint of craft beer is in East Vancouver. But while there's an eco-first mentality on the island, solar power is far from the go-to option for the people who live there.

Liem says that while Salt Spring was once considered "the epicentre of the net metering program" — a reference to the BC Hydro program that enables houses and businesses to sell electricity back to the electrical grid — they're now lagging behind other communities in B.C.

Perhaps the solar-powered school is about to change that. And at the very least, the creative way the program was funded and completed — all within a year — might act as a blueprint for communities across B.C.

"It was really a $9,000 government grant that got us started, and we were able to turn that into $100,000 of donated money and some other grants," says Liem.

The Salt Spring Community Energy Group's list of local businesses and organizations that donated to the cause ranges from Windsor Plywood and the local Lions Club to the Only Planet Cabaret and the Raging Grannies. Some contributions came from not-so-surprising places — Bullfrog Power contributed a $20,000 matching grant — to the likes of local residents Vince Argiro, Maggie Argiro, and Simon Wheeler, who combined to double the value of donations made before Canada Day 2014.

"The project will include an electric vehicle charging component, and there's also an education component," says Liem. "We're talking with the school district about how to integrate energy literacy and climate change information into what's being taught."

Want to see how much electricity the Gulf Islands Secondary School Solar Scholarship Array is generating right now? Select the "Energy and Power" button on the left side of the Sunny Portal, which provides historical and real-time online monitoring of the project.