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Rows upon rows of solar panels cover the rooftop on a building in the city's east end, turning sunlight into energy, and energy into money.

Guelph solar project now generating power in the city's east end

August 31, 2015 at 2:36 PM

Guelph Mercury

GUELPH— Rows upon rows of solar panels cover the rooftop on a building in the city's east end, turning sunlight into energy, and energy into money.

The panels are part of a project organized by the Guelph Renewable Energy Co-operative. In the middle of August, the not-for-profit flipped the switch for the first time, allowing the power, generated by the panels, to flow back into the city's energy grid. The rooftop at 2 Airpark Place has been transform into a small solar farm, holding around 370 panels. The 107 kWp structure is expected to generate enough electricity to power 11 or 12 homes.

A second project is also nearing the finish line. The rooftop of the Value Village and the nearby plaza at 218 Silvercreek Pkwy. is the site of the co-operative's other solar project. This location will carry around 1,100 panels and is scheduled to connect to the power grid at the end of the month. The 300 kWp project is expected to harness enough sunlight to power around 33 homes.

Evan Ferrari is the chair of the not-for-profit co-operative. In an interview on Monday afternoon, he described how the projects, which were seven years in the making, will work.

The co-op has around 200 members. Of those members, 37 of them invested $5,000 each into the project, raising the $185,000 needed to begin construction on the two projects. The combined cost of both projects is $1.1 million.

The co-op received some financial backing from an organization called Options for Energy and will be paying the debt off as money comes in with the energy they produce. They were also able to find loans through their developer partners.

The co-operative teamed up with companies Solera Sustainable Energies and Icarus Power Generation. The panels themselves are made by Guelph's Canadian Solar, but these developers put them into place. The two companies own 49 per cent of the projects and the co-operative will retain a minimum of 51 per cent.

Any surpluses the co-op sees will be placed in a community fund to help other renewable energy co-ops get their projects off the ground, Ferrari said.

For the 37 who signed up, they are part of a 20-year investment, although investors may have the option of selling their bond after five years, Ferrari said

The principal investment and interest will be paid out by the co-operative over the 20-year stretch. Interest rates will gradually rise over time, but the average return for investors will be around seven per cent on their outstanding principal.

Just like any investment, there is risk involved, Ferrari said. However, "of any electricity generation, solar has the lowest risk."

These solar panels are approximately one metre by 1.6 metres in size. They're not directly attached to the rooftops but are on a type of "floating system". Ferrari said they are very durable and able to stay grounded even through tornado-strength winds. The panels themselves have approximately a 35-year lifespan.

Mark Bailey is the chair of the Upper Grand District School Board and also one of the original founders of the co-op. In 2007, he began gathering a group of residents interested in buying solar panels for their own homes. The cost of panels would be cheaper if purchased in bulk, he said.

In 2009, the province launched the FIT (Feed in Tariff) program as part of the Green Energy and Economy Act. This allowed the group to become owners of commercial scale solar energy installations.

The group Bailey put together eventually transformed into the Guelph Renewable Energy Co-op. He said he feels a real sense of pride in the team and in the community for sticking with this solar project.

"If you have the right people and you have the dedicated mindset, then this kind of thing is absolutely possible, and incredibly personally rewarding," he said, adding he hopes their story inspires other groups around the province.

Ferrari said the co-op won't be applying to the province for any other solar projects in the near future, but if and when they apply again, the process should be a lot quicker and easier.

cseto@guelphmercury.com