Solar Energy at T'Sou-ke First Nation

T'Sou-ke First Nation is a busy community on  the south-west corner of Vancouver Island culturally and economically, and they are well known for what they achieved in construction of the largest solar array in B.C., which came about after a process of visioning within the community. One of the options was solar energy which caught the imagination of the people creating the vision. From there it evolved to where they are today.

Unity was the key, since they are a small community living on the far west coast of southern Vancouver Island, they wanted to lessen the imprint made on the environment. T'Sou-ke has long been feeling the effects of industrialization on their immediate surroundings, “As a youngster I remember we could dig for our clams right on the beach in front of our house (facing the Sooke Basin),” said Elder Linda Bristol. “Clams are gone, as are cockles. That is on our radar for further action to repair our beaches and waters.”

Bristol says community members were engaged throughout a planning process with a goal to create employment for families and share knowledge with other First Nation communities. She said several trainees became certified installers of solar hot water heating systems and PV systems for T'Sou-ke administration buildings. 

The T'Sou-ke solar array came about through partnerships and special relationships with businesses. Home Energy Solutions (HESPV) is a company dedicated to Solar Energy and  green energy solutions. Ed Knaggs oversees training procedures for  HESPV out of Victoria, B.C., and Knaggs was completely engaged in the T'Sou-ke First Nation solar demonstration project on the south-west end of Vancouver Island. He says the project was initiated to prove the overall viability of solar energy in B.C.. 

“It served as a green energy prototype and they are sharing the solar water heating and direct energy model as a potential new energy program in other First Nations. It's a great demonstration of solar energy working in a place that has the right amount of sunshine. HESPV did the solar engineering and installation training of nine installers and we found the T'Sou-ke to be a shining example of a community dedicated to green energy solutions.”

The panels were made in Germany and USA. The total coast of installing the solar array in T`Sou-ke was $800,000, which delivers 75 KWh (the average home uses 6 KWh) of clean renewable green energy to 25 T'Sou-ke homes for water heating, and electricity to T`Sou-ke Nation administration offices and buildings.

Tyler Finnie was 20 when he was one of the solar installers who trained on the T'Sou-ke Nation Solar Demonstration Project, and he recounts, “two weeks of classroom time teaching us safety and how to work on ladders and rooftops. Then we were paired off with certified installers and worked on hands-on installation of the hotwater solar systems.” Finnie says the program went very well, starting with assisting and integrating employees further into the process each day.

It took roughly about a month to learn the ins and outs of the electrical and plumbing that becomes part of a solar hotwater heating array, and that was the first array, hotwater heating for 25 houses. The solar electrical array came next. It was pretty much a similar experience but it went faster. The solar electric demonstration was brought to near completion by the two crews of installers. 

Jessica Bekker was an electrical engineering student at University of Victoria (Uvic) who worked on the T'Sou-ke solar array as a Co-op summer student completing part of her mandatory program towards her degree. “I'm actually finished my degree,” a four-year Elec.Eng. degree that provided her with a variety of interesting experiences including one summer doing recruitment of Aboriginal students at UVic. 

Bekker started her career-oriented post-secondary education at Camosun College in Victoria and transferred credits to UVic and as the degree came closer she found the desire to study renewable energy during a course on sustainable energy systems, “I knew I wanted to apply this knowledge to First Nation communities.  Photo-voltaic is amazing high-technology that really works on off-grid situations.” 

She arrived in the T'Sou-ke community when the solar project was in full bloom, "Things are running efficiently and it's 75 KWh of new energy assembled within about six months. It's low-maintenance with no moving parts. There may be some battery maintenance but very little else.”

Bekker said the T'Sou-ke project was laid out in four different arrays, “Two of the four systems have battery banks of 16 batteries each. These battery banks are expensive, about $5,000 each. Batteries introduce inefficiencies, whereas the other two arrays are direct solar to electrical systems.” She said batteries serve a purpose in supplying power when the other arrays are dormant in darkness or low-sunlight conditions.

The two T'Sou-ke Nation administration buildings contain a total of 35 kW that is a direct electrical energy  installation to power up  offices, and there is a 40 KWh array that demonstrates  direct solar energy being sold back to the grid. Bekker says of the overall project, “was $800,000 well spent.”