Lumsden using solar energy to become Saskatchewan's most sustainable small town

Lumsden, Sask., has added multiple solar panels to community buildings and has its eyes set on the future.

Mayor Bryan Matheson says any municipality could do the same thing

Lumsden, Sask., is home to 1,800 people. (Fiona Odlum/CBC News)

The science is clear. We must take action now to protect our planet.

But the economics are also clear. To build a strong and resilient economy we must harness the power of a cleaner future. That is exactly what one community in Saskatchewan is doing, and it is blazing a sustainable trail.

Lumsden, Sask., is tucked away in the Qu'Appelle Valley, with 1,800 people calling it home.

The town's demographics have changed over the years. Most recently it has skewed toward younger families. But one thing that doesn't change is the type of people who live there.

Lumsden is known as a community for artists. When you drive through the town, you can feel the creative energy, with colourful murals splashed on buildings saying things like "Free Bird" and "Freedom."

Mayor Bryan Matheson says planning ahead was key to the town's success. (Fiona Odlum/CBC News)

Bryan Matheson has lived in Lumsden for more three decades and has held the title of mayor since 2010. The retired school teacher doesn't describe himself as an environmentalist, but said he knew that planning for the future was important. So when the town needed to make some upgrades to its facilities, going solar just made sense.

"It's all about the money, you can keep paying the dollars or you can find away to reduce costs. And we felt that renewable energy was certainly a great way to use what's here and reduce the costs for its residents and do what's right for the world," Matheson said.

Matheson said he had a vision for the community and knew it had to be based on renewable energy. He said change can be scary for some people, and when it comes to solar people usually draw the blinds due to the price. 

"Generally people were receptive, not everyone but for the most part, especially the young people," Matheson said. "As we grew younger there was more acceptance and more readiness to buy into what we are doing."

Baby steps

The town started looking into alternative forms of energy in 2016. It looked at solar and even a wind farm. After an environmental assessment the wind farm idea was shutdown, but solar was all systems go.

The town started its transition to solar in 2017 with a project on the River Park community building. The panels produce 15,000 kilowatt-hours of energy a year on average, which translates into 54 per cent of the building's electricity usage. This reduced monthly bills and reliance on SaskPower.

The panels are projected to save the town $21,000 over their lifespans, which are usually more than 20 years.

All systems go

After the success of the River Park project, council approved a larger solar project that would power the local recycling depot and two sewage lift stations. The $1.1-million project went live in 2020. Unlike the first project, these systems are grid tied and net zero.

Then came the biggest project yet — the wastewater treatment facility. It was badly out of date, wasn't environmentally safe and was preventing the town from growing. Inspectors told the town that if it didn't fix the wastewater facility, the province wouldn't allow any new development in the area.

Replacing the old facility with something similar system was not feasible. Town councillor Rhonda Philips and her team have been monitoring the old lagoon system and its hazards.

"In 2010 we started to get in that wet cycle and it went from 2010 to 2014. So now it wasn't just the size of the lagoons and the contaminants in the lagoons. All of a sudden we had an excess water problem and we had infiltration into our sewer tiles and so it was time to address the issue," she said. 

Town councilor Rhonda Phillips says the new wastewater facility means the town can begin growing again. (Fiona Odlum/CBC News)

The town applied for funding from the provincial and federal governments, each of which contributed a third of the $21-million price tag. 

The town created an environmentally friendly wastewater treatment facility and installed a solar array the size of two football fields to power it. Wastewater is treated with micro-organisms that digest waste and hit with ultra-violet light before being returned back to the Qu'Appelle River.

Micro-organisms are added to waste before being hit with an ultra-violet light. (Fiona Odlum/CBC News)

The processing system is so environmentally safe it's actually helping improve local waterways.

"Our levels of contamination in our effluent are in some cases lower than what is in the river. So in fact our sewage can ameliorate the contamination that is already in the river," Philips said. 

Change is contagious 

The environmentally friendly moves have also inspired locals. Homeowners have added solar panels to their homes. A local business offers a free EV charging station. The grocery store stopped using plastic bags without government intervention. Even the biathlon training centre invested in an environmentally safe safe snowmaking machine, which is one of a kind in the province.

The free EV charging station at Kelln Solar in Lumsden. (Fiona Odlum/CBC News )

Solar has also been catching on in other communities around the province.

First Nations have been active in adding solar to their communities, with major projects completed in Cowessess First Nation and Muskoday First Nation.

But the two major cities in province have been slower to absorb the sun.

Regina is just 35 kilometres southeast of Lumsden. Currently Regina has two recreation facilities using solar and a solar hot water heating system at one fire hall. It also has a handful of other projects under construction at Wascana Pool and the Regina Police Service headquarters.

Saskatoon currently has two city pools pulling energy from solar panels, with two larger solar projects in the works. 

Saskatoon's Harry Bailey Aquatic Centre. (Supplied by the City of Saskatoon)

Prince Albert is currently not using solar and doesn't have any projects in the works.

Moose Jaw, on the other hand, has solar service at civic facilities the Yara Centre, Mosaic Place, city hall and the local police station.

The solar array in Lumsden is the size of two football fields. (Fiona Odlum/CBC News)

When Lumsden Mayor Matheson looks at bigger cities, he wonders why they aren't doing more.

"They have way more costs, but they have way more benefits too. They need to step up," he said.

He feels that they haven't done anything special in Lumsden, and that with pre-planning it's achievable everywhere. 

Mayor Matheson and Coun. Phillips say mayors from other towns and cities have approached them for tips on how to secure funding and how the facilities work. They say they are open to helping communities get on the grid.

As for what's next for Lumsden, the town is already looking at installing solar-powered street lights. The next major goal is to one day get the arena solar powered.

"You don't have to plan to do it today, but plan to do it tomorrow," Matheson said.


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