Nelson, B.C. looks to pioneer community solar garden

Solar Panels

By Maura Forrest

July 16, 2015

The small city of Nelson, B.C. could become the first in Canada to build a community solar garden for its residents.

The garden would provide clean energy to residents who buy into the project with 25-year contracts.

Each panel would cost about $1,000, which customers could buy upfront or in monthly payments of as little as $3.47 per month. A single panel would earn customers an annual credit of just under $29 on their hydro bill, and that amount would increase as hydro rates go up. 

Solar electricity would come at a premium – customers would likely pay about 12 cents per kilowatt hour instead of nine cents for hydro power. But the investment could ultimately pay off, as hydro rates are expected to increase while the cost of solar power is expected to stay fairly stable.

Carmen Proctor of Nelson Hydro, the city-owned utility that is championing the project, said Nelson residents are willing to pay extra for a clean source of power.

“We do live in a very environmentally progressive community,” she told the Vancouver Sun. “People are ready and champing at the bit for us to get this project built.”

Currently, Nelson Hydro buys about half the community’s electricity from FortisBC, and some of that power comes from coal.

The solar garden would likely weigh in at either 50 or 90 kilowatt hours (roughly 192 or 342 solar panels). The smaller design would cost close to $300,000, while the larger model would cost nearly $450,000. Roughly 66 per cent of the cost of the smaller design and 80 per cent of the cost of the larger design would be borne by customers, according to a city report. Solar power from the garden would feed into the hydro grid.

Over 250 residents have expressed interest in the project so far, according to the city’s website. Presales of the solar panels must hit 75 per cent for the project to go ahead.

Community solar gardens are increasingly popular in the U.S., where such installations are expected to grow five-fold this year and to provide 1.8 gigawatts of solar power by 2020.

The advantage of community solar is that it allows residents who wouldn’t be able to install rooftop panels – renters, for example – to purchase clean energy. That could be up to 75 or 80 per cent of consumers in the U.S., according to figures cited in City of Nelson’s report.

The report also found it’s roughly 30 per cent cheaper to invest in community solar than to install individual rooftop solar panels.

Still, this project would be the first of its kind in Canada. B.C.’s only large-scale solar installation is a 1.3-megawatt solar farm near Kimberley, which is slated to come online this month.

A Vancouver company called SolShare Energy has developed a project that aims to offer a 3.1 per cent return for a $2,000 investment in solar array projects across B.C., but it has yet to launch its first solar energy system.

If enough residents buy into the project, construction on Nelson’s community solar garden could begin as early as fall 2015.