Heritage centre's new solar panels move Skidegate toward energy independence

Nearly 400 photovoltaic (PV) solar panels have been installed at the Haida Heritage Centre at Ḵay Llnagaay, making it the largest community-owned installation in B.C.

Plans to install panels on the community's 360 homes already under consideration

An aerial view of the Haida Heritage Centre at Ḵay Llnagaay. (VoVo Productions)

The panels are up and the inverters are wired — all that's left is one last visit from an electrician and Skidegate's most ambitious solar energy project to date will be complete.

A total of 385 photovoltaic (PV) solar panels have been installed at the Haida Heritage Centre at Ḵay Llnagaay — an award-winning Indigenous tourist attraction and community hub overlooking the waters of the Hecate Strait.

Chief Coun. Billy Yovanovich said the project brings the community one step closer to achieving energy independence and reduces its use of fossil fuels. Skidegate currently pulls electricity from a combination of sources supplied to the grid, first hydro and then a backup diesel system. 

A big motivator for energy independence is the Haida's opposition to oil-and-gas projects such as Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline and the now-defunct Pacific Northwest LNG plant, Yovanovich says.

"If we're going that far as to halt all these different projects, what are we doing to help offset this diesel that we're using," Yovanovich said. "So these are steps in the right direction we're taking with our solar projects, energy projects."

Solar panels are nothing new to Skidegate, a community of roughly 900 people located on the southeast shore of Graham Island. There are already installations connected to some of the community's water pumps, the elementary school and George Brown Rec Centre.

However, the solar project at the heritage centre is by far the most extensive — and the largest community-owned installation in B.C., according to project manager and community energy developer David Isaac of W Dusk Energy Group.

At 50,000 square feet, the heritage centre consumes a lot of electricity. In fact, Yovanovich says one of the council's biggest concerns is the centre's hydro bill, which costs somewhere around $100,000 a year.

"So anything we can do to offset that is part of the driving force," he said.

People gathered in Skidegate on Aug. 19 to celebrate the ninth anniversary of the Haida Heritage Centre and to celebrate the new solar installation. (Josephina Baik/VoVo Productions)
Even with hundreds of solar panels transforming energy from the sun, Isaac estimates they will account for about 10 per cent of the centre's total energy consumption, generating up to 100 kilowatts of electricity. However, he thinks that percentage could be higher.

"We kind of want to under-promise and over-deliver, so that's why we're saying 10 per cent," he said, adding that the upgrades will continue until the goal of net neutral is reached.

"Ideally, we'd like to be energy independent for the heritage centre at least, but we're looking at our whole community," Yovanovich said.

An exercise in mythbusting

While trying to figure out the best alternative energy solution for the heritage centre, Isaac said, they looked into a number of options, including wind turbines and ocean thermal heat pumps. However, Isaac says, after weighing the options, solar came out on top.

I think this is very much a technological embodiment of modern Indigenous ways.- David Isaac

"We use a metric called the price-per-watt," he said.

"Because there are no moving parts and because the warranties for the panels themselves are between 25 and 30 years, there aren't many other technologies that come close to that."

Isaac said he realizes when people think of capturing solar energy, images of California on a hot, sunny day often come to mind. However, he's quick to point to Germany, a longstanding global leader in solar power, and a place that has a very similar climate to Haida Gwaii in terms of solar resources.

"In many ways this project is mythbusting," he said.

Technicalities aside, Isaac said, the panels also blend in well visually. 

"The juxtaposition with the longhouses and the poles really is quite striking and instantly emblematic … I think this is very much a technological embodiment of modern Indigenous ways and it reflects our relationship with the land and our environment."

Next project on the horizon

With just a few finishing touches left on the heritage centre's solar installation, Yovanovich says, band council is already looking toward their next solar project — installing panels on Skidegate's 360 houses.

The solar art component of the project was designed by Arthur Pearson to resemble a collapsed longhouse. (Josephina Baik/VoVo Productions )
The hope is to reduce residential draw on the grid by about 50 per cent.

Once council has a feasibility study done, Yovanovich says, they'll have a better sense of what it would take to make their goal a reality.

"We've got lots of momentum right now and we want to continue on with that," he said. "We're open to partnerships with anybody to help us pull off the next project."

Collaboration was a big part of pulling off the solar project at the heritage centre, Isaac said, "We're like a NASCAR [National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing] hood, we just have so many logos."

The list of funding contributors and suppliers who worked with Skidegate on the project include Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, Gwaii Trust, Canadian Energy, Bullfrog Power, and Parks Canada. The project was managed by Isaac.