New Westminster is poised to become what it describes as the first local government in Metro Vancouver to start “growing” its own solar energy.
The Royal City plans to lead the pack with the Urban Solar Garden: 153 solar panels on the rooftop of a civic building in New Westminster. The two shortlisted sites for the garden are the Queensborough Community Centre and the Public Works Yard building.
Norm Connolly, community energy manager for New Westminster, described the project as the first municipal community solar array in the region. New Westminster is asking for bids and hopes the project can be up and running by this summer.
He hopes it influences other cities and municipalities.
“We called it the Urban Solar Garden because it is in an urban context,” he said.
“We’re hoping that this will be influential and helpful to other local governments, but also for private-sector players that want to look at conversion and doing something like this on their flat-top roof space.”
Connolly said a model for New Westminster has been the community solar garden in Nelson. Built just outside the city, the Nelson Hydro solar array is a centralized facility of solar panels where each community investor receives a proportional credit on their electric bill.
When the Nelson Hydro solar garden opened last June, it was the first of its kind in the country.
New Westminster’s Urban Solar Garden solar array will be able to generate up to 50 kilowatts an hour, or 54,000 kW per year.
B.C. Hydro has about 1,300 projects that generate electricity for the users and sell anything extra to the province’s grid. Solar accounts for about 90 per cent of the projects in what B.C. Hydro calls Net Metering.
Connolly said the New Westminster project is an example of the growing number of small, local energy producers contributing into the larger energy grid.
“There is a transition point happening — the operating cost of solar production is at a price point where it’s starting to become very competitive or quite competitive in some jurisdictions with grid-based electrical energy,” Connolly said.
All 153 solar panels in New Westminster were spoken for with $500 deposits within a 30-day period last year. Connolly said he hopes the final cost per panel is under $840.
The final price tag of the project may be about $140,000. That doesn’t include costs such as paying for the use of the roof-top site, maintenance and monitoring.
Each panel, he estimated, would generate about $32 to $36 a year in savings. Based on a 25-year agreement, the panels could start paying for themselves by year 15 to 19, depending on future energy costs.
Bryson Robertson, a researcher for the 2060 Project with the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, said while he wasn’t familiar with the details of the solar energy projects in New Westminster and Nelson, he expects there will be more projects like these in future because of the drop in the cost of generating solar energy.
“It empowers people, it gets people part of the process, it allows them to follow it,” said Robertson, an adjunct professor in mechanical engineering at the University of Victoria.
“Any sort of education awareness around energy power, electricity, renewable, is a fantastic thing. This is a space that is filled with so much misinformation.”
The 2060 Project looks at the costs and benefits of electrical grid integration as part of decarbonizing the economy.
But he pointed out that there is a disparity between energy put into the grid and energy taken out of the grid.
When you pay B.C. Hydro for electricity, you’re also paying for costs such as the dam that generates the electricity, the transmission line that delivers it to your house and other energy sources that fill the gap when the main source isn’t available.
“If you reimburse people purely for putting electricity back into the grid, there is a bit of disparity: you’re paying for the generation cost whereas when you draw from the grid, you’re paying for generation, transmission, backup and other services,” he said.
“It’s important for people to understand that they’re different products — when you’re pulling from the grid and pushing to the grid, the costs of doing these things are not the same.”
The Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions is hosted by the University of Victoria in collaboration with Simon Fraser University, the University of B.C. and University of Northern B.C.
In Kimberley, SunMine is the province’s largest solar project and the first to sell power to B.C. Hydro when it began commercial operation in June 2015. The $5.3-million project has 4,032 solar cells on 96 trackers that follow the sun’s movement.