Feel good about your information and become a local news champion today

Shining bright: Renfrew solar garden gets 2021 go-ahead

Before we start… inspiring Calgary stories like these are being overlooked by other media – independent and mainstream alike – but we think they’re the real stories that make up the fabric of our city. Stories like these are reader funded and are the cornerstone of our commitment to fact-based, community-focused information. Consider becoming a member so we can grow the breadth and depth of our coverage by adding another full-time journalist to our team.

Renfrew’s proposed solar garden will start collecting rays in 2021 as the project was fully funded in a recent provincial announcement on infrastructure cash.

Last week, the province approved the City of Calgary’s list of infrastructure projects funded by a COVID-19 municipal infrastructure spend. Among those were $8.9 million in upgrades at Telus Spark.

How does that fit in, you ask?

That’s where the story takes a bit of a turn for the Renfrew solar garden project. When LiveWire Calgary first reported on the project 18 months ago, they were still in the planning phase. Where would it go? Would they be able to fund it as a cooperative?

It’s evolved from a cooperative investment among Renfrew community members, to a piece of City of Calgary infrastructure. It will still maintain the community return, however.

“The original vision was a grant-free vision,” said Paul Gill, project champion for the Renfrew solar garden.

“The irony is, it’s completely the opposite. It’s 100 per cent grant.”

When the Renfrew Community Association went through the feasibility study it determined that it would likely need external funds to pull the project off. They originally had hoped to rustle up 200 people from the community to invest $10,000. Those investors would get an annual rate of return based off the sale of electricity back to the grid.

They’d reached out to the city for guidance and support for the project.

That’s where the partnership with the city began. And how it ended up on the infrastructure list.

Calgary climate resiliency strategy

Arsheel Hirji is the leader of sustainable infrastructure with the City of Calgary. He said the Renfrew project really fit into one of the city’s goals of supporting community ownership in renewable power generation.

Hirji got involved last year to help Renfrew wrap up their feasibility study. Then, they set out to find funding. COVID-19 hit and it presented an opportunity when the province rolled out municipal relief funding.

That money was earmarked for projects that could be completed in 2021 to help get Calgarians back to work.

“We were successful in raising funds from that municipal stimulus program,” said Hirji.

This project is the first of its kind in the city, a power generation partnership between a community and the City of Calgary.

Because of the rules around the municipal funding, the project must be complete in 2021.

“The project will be producing sun juice by the end of the year,” Hirji said.

The Telus Spark connection

The revised project has a location and a new cost. Originally it was pegged to be a $1.6 million project. It’s more than doubled in size and scope.

The $3.9 million project will create an array over the entire Telus Spark parking lot. Hirji describes it as a solar carport structure, meaning the panels – 2,400 of them – will be atop each stall.

They expect it will generate enough electricity to power 250 Calgary homes. The primary consumer, however, will likely be the Telus Spark location. Hirji said they presented to their board of directors a plan to be the long-term consumer of the power.

“That gives some certainty to the community on revenues that can be earned annually from the project,” Hirji said.

Hirji estimates that the annual return would be around $120,000.

Gill said the whole vision for the project centred around creating a mechanism that could generate revenue in trust to put back into future community-focused renewable energy projects.

“I’m hoping at this point is that we’ll be able to build the asset, and we’ll be able to use the asset to generate revenue that will go into this grant program for all the neighboring communities,” Gill said.

Along with that, a step-by-step blueprint is being created, Gill said, to streamline the process for other Calgary communities.

“The plan was, once it got funded, which is basically now to all the communities and neighborhoods in Calgary, which is 151 communities, and saying, ‘hey, if you want to do this, this is how we did it and expect the yearly grant to come out,’” he said.

Community project sees the light of day

David Barrett, president of the Renfrew Community Association, said the fine details are still being hammered out, but he’s thrilled to see Gill’s vision, and that of the dedicated volunteers, take shape.

“It’s fantastic news, we’re really happy to see it come to fruition,” Barrett said.

While the City of Calgary will own the structure, the operation will be done through a corporate structure via the Renfrew Community Association. It’s like the way Community Association buildings are city-owned and then leased/operated by the CAs.

Barrett said he was glad the city was a willing partner.

“We wouldn’t be where we are with their support, particularly of Arsheel (Hirji),” Barrett said.

And like Gill pointed out, they wanted the result to be one that helped other communities.

“What we’re doing is planting the seed money, or we’re using the seed money to grow a bigger across-the-city initiative where others could get funds through this to enable these types of projects,” Barrett said.

When the switch is flicked and the panels begin producing power, there will be a real feeling of accomplishment, Gill said.

“We’re pioneers in this and what we’re hoping that will happen is this is commonplace in the end,” he said.

“What’s the word for that… just being one of those early adopters.”