3 Nova Scotia towns hope to build community 'solar gardens'

Three Nova Scotia towns are planning to build "solar gardens" to generate nearly six megawatts of power, and they're hoping their citizens will buy in to the project.

The Nova Scotia towns of Antigonish, Berwick, Mahone Bay and Riverport all own their electrical utilities, and own the Alternative Resource Energy Authority (AREA).

"Much like you have a community garden where people own a certain plot, customers of the electric utility could buy panels or shares of this company, so they would be part-owners of this project," said Aaron Long, AREA's director of business services.

AREA has issued a request for information from companies interested in the project, which Long said would generate seven per cent of the annual power used by the participating towns of Antigonish, Mahone Bay and Berwick.

The energy authority already operates a 23.5-megawatt wind farm near Ellershouse that generates enough power for 6,500 homes. 

Don Clarke, the mayor of Berwick, said that thanks to the wind farm and a hydroelectric dam owned by the town, 62 per cent of Berwick's power is already renewable. 

"The solar project is one way ... the next step, I guess, in trying to become more green and having more renewable power," he said. 

Rohit Jospeh/CBC

Long said land has already been identified in all three communities where solar panels could be placed.

"The target would be to find land that would otherwise not generate tax revenue for these municipalities because there's no point putting down a solar garden in a place that has another productive use," he said.

In Berwick, that could be land around the town's water treatment facility. Or perhaps even on water. 

"We're also looking... about the possibility of actually floating panels on our sewage treatment ponds. There's some additional benefits to having shade on those and making use of the power," Clarke said.

Steve Lawrence/CBC

Long said buying a share in a municipal solar garden is more feasible than traditional home solar installations, which cost around $20,000.

"Participating in solar in the way it's designed right now, it's only for a certain type of customer. We want all customers to participate in this," he said.

There's also the possibility of eventually recouping your money because people can sell their shares.

"You can't easily tear solar equipment off your roof and sell it. Even if you did, it wouldn't be worth a lot," Long said. 

Tight timelines

The request for information also asks for details on a possible power storage facility that would allow AREA to release green power to the grid at more advantageous times.

Long won't reveal the projected budget of the solar project, but said it would cost millions of dollars, but less than $10 million.

"We're motivated to do this as quickly as possible so people invest with us instead of against us, and the sooner we get this operating, the sooner our customers can make that favourable choice," he said.

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