July 31, 2018
Canada’s first community solar garden, located in Nelson, BC, has completed its first year of solar electricity generation. The solar array was installed on City owned land just outside of Nelson and is 60 kW in size. The location is also home to the Nelson Hydro generating station, the municipally owned and operated electric utility. Solar electricity generation has been implemented here as offering renewable energy options to the community aligns with Nelson’s Path to 2040 Sustainability goals and the City’s recent commitment to the West Kootenay EcoSociety’s 100% Renewable Kootenays by 2050 initiative.
Solar projects are neither rare nor unique. However, what makes this project a first for Canada is that members of the community have voluntarily invested in the panels. They will see a solar credit applied to their electric bill as if they had panels on their own roof. This also known as virtual net metering and is a definitive part of a community solar garden.
However, not everyone that is interested in solar energy can access it. Some may face challenges such as a rented building, a shaded roof or affordability. This type of model makes solar energy more accessible to those who want it. The system of 240 panel is fully subscribed to, with investors varying from renters, home and business owners. Some of Nelson’s local co-ops, several churches, the local school district and Selkirk College use this system as well. The investors will be receiving a credit on their Nelson Hydro electric bill once per year in proportion to their investment for 25 years. The credit is based on the current electricity rate, mirroring the net metering program that has been in place for years through the utility.
The solar array’s annual generation is estimated to produce 70,000 kWhs of solar over the 25 years. The first year has generated close to this estimation and investors will see their first credit based on 69,600 kWhs, (slightly more than one year’s worth of generation). Most of this generation occurs during the spring, summer and fall. The estimation took into account that the winter months would produce minimal energy. The first year saw smoky skies in the summer and a long winter, plus the theft of six panels. Even with those factors the equipment has performed very well as no other issues were encountered with the panels or the micro-inverters.
The system is built on the ground as opposed to the typical roof mount installations. Due to the bedrock in the area, it was not possible to use a metal racking system that could be drilled into the ground. Instead the structures were placed on cement blocks and a wooden racking system sits on top, made from a local source of cedar. Cedar is a sturdy and durable choice for this type of application, and the design was enforced for snow and wind loads over and above what was required. Local products and suppliers were used when possible.
During the winter, the snow will naturally slide off the panels. However, there are days when the snow sticks around. The initial plan does not include clearing the snow off of the panels, but this will be monitored over the next couple of years. This is a learning experience for the utility and best practices will be implemented as needed. As mentioned, the generation that is expected is mainly coming from the non-winter months.
Bullfrog Power has supported this project from the early stages of research and development to the final built product and the Province of BC has shown support through the Community Energy Leadership Program. Nelson Hydro’s initial commitment was $25,000, and the budget for annual maintenance is $2,000. The final project costs came in 9% over budget, totalling $329,000, and this includes all project management work. The investors accounted for most of this amount with a one-time payment of $923.00 per panel.
Nelson Hydro produces clean hydropower, and some may wonder how adding solar to the mix would be of benefit. Some of the benefits include the utility gaining valuable experience in distributing energy and solar PV technology, plus they were able to offer their customers the option of solar energy. And for some customers who invested, it was an opportunity to support a community initiative as well as transitioning to a clean energy future. “When I visited the Nelson Solar Garden with fellow investors, I realized something: we’re all just regular Nelson citizens, spanning a diverse range of ages and demographics. The tour of the project allowed us to connect with each other and collectively show our support for the project”, said local investor, Kim Horrocks. One investor chose to invest in the array instead of installing panels on the roof, he read over the terms and decided that this was a better deal, plus the credit can be transferred to another account if he were to move.
In Photo: Aerial View of Community Solar Garden
Solar Energy in the Future
The solar array is small in scale but comes with a large vision. The hope is that the model will inspire other communities across Canada to replicate it. If it were replicated in those areas of the country that still rely on electricity sourced from fossil fuels, then there would be the added benefit of reducing GHG emissions. The project has inspired other communities to explore solar. Nelson continues to help communities by providing the knowledge and experience it has gained. The City of New Westminster is set to launch the Lower Mainland’s first community solar garden this summer. “The fact that this concept has been replicated within the first year is outstanding,” said Carmen Proctor, project manager. The project manager has been invited to speak at several conferences and workshops. The solar garden has also been featured in various publications and was awarded a spot in Canada’s Clean50 for 2017, which annually recognizes Canadian leaders in sustainability.
Nelson Hydro is pleased with the first year’s outcome. The panels are performing exactly as expected. Every project involves learning, especially when it is the first one. “If we were to do the same project again, sure there are minor changes we would make but we would build it substantially the same way again”, said Carmen. For more information on the garden, plus online daily solar production and a time lapse video of the project being built, visit the City of Nelson’s website nelson.ca.
In Photo: Grand Opening of Solar Array