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Salt Spring Island school warms up to solar

When a Salt Spring Island community group took on the task of bringing solar power to a local high school, it wasn’t just the students they hoped to reach.
Electrical engineer Will Andrew, left, installer Lane Gromme and project manager Kjell Liem install solar panels on the roof of Gulf Islands Secondary School. The 21-kilowatt project went live in December.

When a Salt Spring Island community group took on the task of bringing solar power to a local high school, it wasn’t just the students they hoped to reach.

“We wanted to show that the technology was mature and even a small community can implement it,” said Kjell Liem, project manager for the Salt Spring Community Energy Group.

The 84 solar photovoltaic panels covering the Gulf Islands Secondary School gym roof went live in December. It is the largest school-based solar array in B.C., according to B.C. Hydro, and the seventh largest overall.

Although the 21-kilowatt project will cover only a portion of the school’s electricity needs, the money the school saves on its energy bill will support an annual $2,000 scholarship for a graduating student planning to study renewable energy or climate change.

The energy saved is roughly equivalent to the typical consumption of two single-family homes, Liem said.

“We were mostly interested in the educational opportunities of something that would benefit the kids, because they’re the ones who ultimately have to respond to climate change,” he said.

The learning opportunity goes beyond the scholarship, said School District 64 superintendent Lisa Halstead.

“I think it’s an absolutely terrific project,” Halstead said. “Not only does it provide energy and scholarships for our students, but we can also use it as a teaching tool in the district.”

School principal Lyall Ruehlen said it’s one of several projects at the school encouraging sustainability. The school has a greenhouse, as well as a “living lettuce wall” that grows produce for the cafeteria’s salad bar.

Working with the school’s chef in the greenhouse is an elective program, he said.

While students in the school’s environmental club were involved in crafting the initial solar proposal to the school board and educating the rest of the school about the project, others became interested as they saw the panels being installed.

“It really happened when you could see our maintenance personnel, staff members and groups of students actually helping out. That’s when other students would get interested — ‘Hey, what’s so-and-so doing over there?’ ” Ruehlen said. “The days would go by and you’d actually start to see progress.”

The $100,000 project was funded through donations, grants and other contributions, including $5,000 from the Salt Spring Island Foundation, $20,000 from Bullfrog Power and $9,700 from the Carbon Neutral Capital Program. Other donors include Windsor Plywood, the local Lions Club and the Raging Grannies.

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