Coast schools bet big on solar


Langdale Elementary, Davis Bay Elementary and Pender Harbour Elementary/Secondary School are harnessing the power of the sun to reduce electricity costs and their reliance on fossil fuel.

School District No. 46’s (SD46) Strategic Plan 2015-19 includes a focus on sustainability, which allowed the school board to approve the projects, said SD46 secretary-treasurer Nick Weswick.

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Langdale Elementary was the first to install an array in the spring of 2017. The school used leftover capital funding for an HVAC boiler replacement to pay for the project, which cost $170,000. The electricity generated by the array is expected to save the school $7,500 annually and is providing the school with 93 per cent of its energy use.

“I thought this was the next logical step to reduce our impact even further, to become more independent and be less reliant on electricity and the fluctuating costs,” said Rob Collison, manager of facilities and transportation at SD46, who is responsible for the tender and oversight of the contracts.

Collison hired Prism Engineering in Burnaby as the electrical consultants to design the installation for Langdale. After that project was put out to tender, Sunshine Coast’s Olson Electric won the bid for Langdale, as well as Davis Bay Elementary and Pender Harbour Elementary/Secondary School.

Both schools in Davis Bay and Pender Harbour are heated by hydroelectricity but the systems needed to be upgraded. Rather than install boiler systems dependent on fossil fuel, the solar arrays allow the schools to continue using electric heat.

“It just feels wrong to be installing more carbon when we could just keep the electric heat we have and offset our costs with solar,” Collison said. “We ran the numbers and figured out it was by far the most sensible solution.”

“It not only saves costs but it’s more environmentally responsible,” said Lori Pratt, board of education chair for SD46.

The scope of the projects is ambitious, with Pender Harbour’s 324 solar panels making it the largest array on any high school in British Columbia, according to Pratt. The array is expected to produce close to 112 megawatt hours, or 34 per cent of the school’s electricity, with savings estimated at $11,200. The Pender Harbour installation cost $199,000.

Pratt said that having business expertise on the Sunshine Coast, as well as the Sunshine Coast Community Solar Association, have made solar installations more viable. “It puts it into your brain that, ‘You know? This is something we can do.’”

Students will be able to monitor energy use via the arrays’ dashboards. “It’s not just about the dollars and cents, it’s also about the education,” Pratt said. “It gives them a chance to learn about another electrical source rather than, ‘Hey, it just comes through the wall.’”

And while it’s true the sun shines brightest in the summer when school is out, this actually works in the schools’ favour, Collison said. That’s because the arrays use what’s known as a net metering system, which allows excess energy produced by the solar panels to be channelled back into the grid, giving the schools credit on their energy bills. “So even on Saturday and Sunday … we’re making money,” Collison said.

Davis Bay will have 198 panels with a net metering system, at a cost of $127,000 and $7,200 annual savings. The array will produce 71 megawatt hours annually, which is 60 per cent of its 120 megawatt hours needs.

Elphinstone Secondary uses a four-panel solar array to power its hot water system. The installation cost $25,000 and is expected to save the school $1,500 annually.

The Davis Bay and Pender Harbour installations are ongoing and estimated to be completed by the end of March, which is also the funding cut off, Weswick said.

There are no immediate plans for more installations at other schools, but “the goal is to have solar on every one of our facilities,” Collison said.

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