The City of Nelson, B.C., could become the first in Canada to build a community solar garden that would provide residents with "clean" energy and credits towards their power bill.

The project, put forward by the city-owned and -operated utility Nelson Hydro, would allow people to purchase power from a solar panel farm for 25 years, and receive a credit that would go towards balancing, and eventually reducing, costs on their bills.

It's in the preliminary stages, said Carmen Proctor of Nelson Hydro, who said interest in the project is growing.

"People here really do care about the environment and they are really progressive in their way of thinking," said Proctor.

She was introduced to the idea a couple of years ago at a conference in the U.S., where community solar farms are growing. Based on a successful pilot program in Nelson aimed at encouraging people to make their homes more energy efficient, she says she knew the concept of a community solar garden would be well received in the southeastern B.C. city.

How it works

A community solar garden is a centralized solar panel farm that gives homeowners and businesses access to solar energy without having to install and maintain panels on their own roof.

The price of the electricity purchased from the proposed solar project in Nelson would cost residents more, but initial community feedback indicates people would be willing to pay the extra costs, said Proctor. 

It's about more than trying to save money, she said, and added costs eventually will even out.

Nelson Hydro is still working out detailed costs, but says people could end up investing something like $1,000 for a solar panel space for 25 years. They can either pay a lump sum up front or make monthly payments of about $3.47 until the solar panel space is paid off.

Depending on how much energy the solar panels produce, it could take roughly 12 to 15 years for residents to recoup the costs of their investment, but once the space is paid off, people would then slowly start to save money, said Proctor.

The amount of the credit that will be put towards hydro bills would depend on how families invest in the project, the amount of energy produced and current electricity rates.

The benefit of the 25-year contracts, she said, is long-term energy price stability.

Next steps

The city-owned utility has budgeted roughly $25,000 to build the community solar garden, with approval from council.

But there are still a few steps to go through before the project becomes a reality.

Council wants more details on the cost and would have to amend a few bylaws before the project could be built.

If council approves those amendments in the fall, Nelson Hydro would hold a public information session and a presale. It would require a commitment of 75 per cent before going ahead.

The field of solar panels will likely be located outside of Nelson.

If successful, it wouldn't be the only solar project in B.C., but it would differ from the large-scale multimillion-dollar solar panel farm in Kimberley, which sells energy back into the BC Hydro grid and provides credits to the city. The Nelson project, on the other hand, would see residents become direct investors and recipients of the credits that come from the energy produced.

"It's city directed, but it depends on community involvement," Proctor said.

To hear the full interview, listen to the audio labelled Nelson Solar.