City of Nelson – Community Solar Garden

There can be a lot in a name and the fact that the solar power project model chosen by the City of Nelson, in the Kootenay Region of British Columbia is called a “Community Solar Garden” tells you a lot. The initiative is green, after all, and there’s room to grow. Also, like any good community garden, the project was designed in a way that allows as much of the community as possible to get in.

Rooftop solar is often restricted not only to those who own their own property, but to those whose property is well-situated to pick up light. Without that, you’re shade out of your luck. The community solar garden model, however, makes investing in solar energy an option for anyone with an electrical account.

Nelson has its own electric utility, Nelson Hydro, and this made it possible to build a solar array in one location, connect it to the grid and then use their existing billing system to return the solar generation credit to customers who invested.  This is known as virtual net-metering. Nelson saw this as an opportunity to address the fact that direct renewable creation energy is simply out of reach for many of the city’s 10,000 residents.

With the community garden model, customers of the utility who chose to invest in solar did so on a per panel basis.  Their electric bills will receive the solar credit in proportion to their investment, just as if the panel they’re investing in were on their very own roof. This means that those who are unable to afford whole solar systems, as well as renters and those with shaded or unsuitable roofs can still access solar energy.

The system — the team behind it consisted of project head, Nelson Hydro General Manager, …… and various staff and electrical and structural engineers  — is 60 kW’s, small in scale. Customers were able to invest in as little as one panel out of the 248 that were ultimately installed. Some customers invested in as many as 15 panels and they’ll receive a solar credit on their electric bills annually for 25 years. The project aims to give the electric utility experience in solar while at the same time offering a local renewable energy option to interested residents.

Various community solar garden models already in place were looked at when the Nelson project was initially conceived.  Prior to addressing the general public in Nelson and requesting input, Nelson Hydro studied the utility and community benefits of the varied models already in place around the world. Very shortly after that, a conversation café was held where curious residents could learn about the solar garden concept and provide input on specific details of the project.

Once the project plan was completed and a buy in model for solar was offered, it became apparent that there was a real sense of community around the plan. The mix of investors came to include renters, homeowners, business owners, churches, several local co-operatives, the local school district and college.

The 60 kW solar array entailed in the plan is projected to generate 70-75,000 kWh/year. That’s approximately 7 homes worth of energy in Nelson.  As intended, the project is small in scale, a test the model and concept for future expansion.

The hope is that the project can be replicated across the country, helping to increase renewable energy in Canada.  Nelson is already working with other communities to share their knowledge and experience. Nelson Hydro, after all, learned about the community solar garden concept from projects that were already up and running in the United States.

This, as it turns out, labour, sunshine, fertile ground and something like cross-pollination, is how your garden grows.