Recently SkyFire Energy had the opportunity to connect with Joshua Campbell, President of the Wascana Solar Coop (WSC) out of Regina. Having a “stronger together approach” to our business, we were compelled to share their story. Being a part of two solar business cooperatives (Amicus Purchasing and O&M) for sharing best practices, our organization knows first-hand how beneficial being a part of a cooperative can be. This is what Joshua had to say about starting the co-op, the benefits and the obstacles they had to overcome to get to where they are today.
How did you come to be a part of the Wascana Solar Coop?
Wow! It was completely a grass-roots beginning. My wife Morgan and I had first thought about putting up solar panels in 2014 and just found it to be too expensive. Then, in the summer of 2017, we watched Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Sequel”. As we were leaving the film, the topic of getting panels came up again and Morgan asked, “What if we asked some other families if they were interested and wanted to buy some panels together as a group?” This led me to an Internet search about solar co-operatives where I found information about a group bulk purchase program through the Mt. Pleasant Solar Coop in Washington D.C. as well as a person in Regina who had held a solar coop interest meeting earlier in the year (it was Susan Birley, who became the other founder member of our co-op). Susan and I got together and decided to hold a Facebook Event inviting any people who were interested in going solar. We expected maybe 30 people to show up. By the time the event started, there was close to 120 people in the room (standing room only). Just over a half a year later we formed Saskatchewan’s most recent co-operative. We now have 71 members and will have installed over 400 panels in our first year.
What do you see as the benefits of being a part of a solar co-operative?
Morgan and I were a part of the first group buy for our co-op. Through our group buy initiative – our co-op gathers the technical requirements for solar projects then we tender it out in a Request for Proposal. We were one of 13 members to be involved. SkyFire Energy was one of the companies that won our bid (our system was installed by SkyFire Energy). Andrew Tait, WSC group buy coordinator, estimates that our group of 13 members saved $67,000 off of the market rate on our panel purchase and installation (that’s about $5,000 each).
The other program that our co-op offers are solar investment opportunities. With this program, co-op members purchase preferred shares ($1,000 each). We then reach out to potential partners who offer us space to install our systems. We help our partners “go green” while they pay us the cost of their power usage. We anticipate good returns with this program which is a benefit to all interested in solar energy investment, but especially those who don’t have space or capital available to install their own panels.
In addition to economics, there are many other benefits. First, there is the community and educational components that are built-in to the co-operative model. Already, we have received great help from places such as the SES Saskatoon Solar Co-op, Conexus Credit Union and the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives at the University of Saskatchewan. Helping young co-ops get started is one of the foundational principles of the co-operative model and we have really appreciated this. Secondly, there is the principle of co-operation itself that has benefited us. People see us as a community organization looking to help others rather than a business whose top priority is profit. Finally, and what a lot of our members count as most importantly, we offer people the benefit of a very practical, non-partisan way to mitigate climate change and create a more sustainable future.
What is one main obstacle the co-op faced but were able to overcome and move forward?
I would say that our biggest obstacles thus far has been two things: getting the word out there about our coop (marketing) and volunteer burnout. These are related because thus far, we have had a board of seven people that have also done all of our operations. In the midst of all of this, we have found it very difficult to get the word out there about us and our two programs. We are looking to overcome this by hiring our first executive director as soon as this summer, which will definitely help us in these two areas.
What attracted you to solar power and renewable energy in general?
I have taught quite a few science courses at the high school level.
Two of the statistics that concerned me when I taught my students were: 1) That the majority (40%) of Saskatchewan’s energy comes from coal and, 2) That our province is one of the worst GHG emitters in the world (per capita). When I later learned that southern Saskatchewan is also one of the greatest places for solar energy generation in North America, I wondered why in the world, we weren’t doing way more to go solar here! Rather than just talking about the problems of climate change to my students, I wanted to show them that I was being apart of the solution.
What difference do you believe the solar industry is making in Saskatchewan?
Saskatchewan’s solar industry is in its infancy. It is making a small difference now, but that is a drop-in-the-bucket compared to the difference it could make if more people and organizations realized the potential we had here.
Please share a solar story that was particularly meaningful to you:
Stephen Hall’s story. When we held out first solar coop interest meeting on October 23, 2017, we invited Stephen Hall to come to speak about the system on his house. One of the significant things that I recall him saying was that even though he got into solar for sustainability reasons, he doesn’t even need to talk about the environment anymore when he’s pitching solar, because now, it just makes economic sense. Hall explained how the money that he was now paying for monthly power was $20 less and that included an upfront capital loan that he was paying off. This meant that eventually, he would be paying far less than $20 (more like $120). His case serves as a rebuttal to those who wave solar off as being too expensive. According to Hall, it’s cheaper, not only in the long run but right away.
SkyFire Energy’s Vision Statement is: To bring the magic of solar to the world for a stronger, healthier and more sustainable global community. What does the magic of solar mean to you?
The Indigenous people of this region of what they called Turtle Island used the power of the sun to live successfully on this land for millennia. While I don’t think that we can go back to living the way that they did before European contact, I believe that the principle of working with nature rather than against it is one that we must learn. This, to me, is the magic of solar energy: it is using modern technology to work with nature, rather than against it, to meet our energy needs.
Where do you think the renewable energy industry is going in general?
I believe it will and it must grow! People are starting to see both the economic and environmental sense that renewable energy makes.
In addition, Joshua’s family is excited to say since they had their panels installed Thursday, March 7th, 2019, that they are making more power (334 kWh) than they have used (304 kWh). They are so excited to know that they are now a producer, not just a consumer of power in our province. The Wascana Solar Coop has already had people inquiring across Western Canada about how they can start their own solar coops. The good news is that the Wascana Solar Coop group buy and solar investment opportunity models could be replicated across the Prairies. The Coop is eager to hear of other places that want to start similar types of initiatives.