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Banking on solar

September 8, 2015 at 5:51 PM

By Samantha Beattie
Guelph Tribune

Liz Snell wanted to install solar panels on her Guelph home to support renewable energy and make a difference to the environment.

It was to her disappointment that she found her roof was too shaded and oddly shaped for solar panels. Plus, they’re a lot of money – upwards of $30,000.

Then she heard about the Guelph Renewable Energy Co-op (GRECo) and realized she could still help the city reduce its fossil fuel usage.

“When I heard about the co-op I realized it was a chance to participate in green energy with a smaller dollar commitment and make a reasonable return,” said Snell, who is now a GRECo investor.

“I was interested in the whole idea of a co-op too because it’s the community working together to benefit all.”

Now, several years later, Snell has seen her investment pay off.

GRECo announced last week its first solar project is up and running. The 370 panels on the rooftop of 2 Airpark Pl. are generating enough electricity to power 11 to 12 homes, said the chair of GRECo’s board, Evan Ferrari.

“The idea of a renewable energy co-op is to get people involved in providing renewable energy,” he said. “We’re putting our money where our mouth is.”

GRECo has 200 co-op members, 37 of whom have invested $5,000 each, which was enough to start construction on two projects.

Mark Bailey, chair of the Upper Grand District School Board, began the group in 2007. He reached out to residents who were interested in buying solar panels for their homes and proposed they invest together to save money. That idea eventually evolved into GRECo.

GRECo’s second, much larger project is on top of the Value Village at 218 Silvercreek Pkwy. Right now 1,100 panels are being installed to generate enough energy for 300 homes.

“The board found some really great sites on flat roofs that have great power potential and don’t use up agricultural land,” said Snell, who now runs a local environmental consulting firm alongside her husband.

The average annual return for investors is projected to be about seven per cent on their outstanding principle. Of all the types of electricity generation, solar is probably the least risky, said Ferrari, who is also the executive director of eMERGE – a group that promotes environmental sustainability in Guelph.

GRECo has already overcome the biggest risk – securing a contract with the province. For applications to the Green Energy and Economy Act’s Feed in Tariff program, there’s a 75 per cent turn-down rate, said Ferrari.

In 2012, GRECo submitted applications for three different projects and, against the odds, two were approved. It likely helped that the projects were co-operatively owned and benefit the community, Ferrari said.

Along with its investors, GRECo has financial backing from Options for Green Energy. Any extra money it makes will help fund other cooperatives.

GRECo is modelled on the Toronto cooperative called WindShare, of which Ferrari is a former president. WindShare is the joint partner of the wind turbine located at the Canadian Exhibition Centre. Now that GRECo is up and running, the group is looking forward to other projects. “What we want to do is work with developers to cooperatively own more energy systems,” said Ferrari.

Developers Solera Sustainable Energies and Icarus Power Generation install the panels and own 49 per cent of the projects. Guelph’s Canadian Solar made the panels.