The following article was originally published by the David Suzuki Foundation on March 1st, 2017. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author and the Foundation.

“When you do solar arrays, people’s language changes,” says co-op founder

By Gideon Forman

“It was a world speed-record,” jokes Bob Spencer. “They created the array in just 22 days.”

The ‘array’ is a 72 kilowatt solar installation commissioned by a grass-roots energy co-op and mounted atop an elementary school in Toronto’s Beach neighborhood.

Spencer, a founder of the co-op and former school trustee, exudes passion and precision — “It was built between August 11 and September 2, 2016” – when he explains how the project came to be.

Its genesis was a question the Spencers and two other Beach families asked themselves almost a decade ago: “What can we do to connect people, schools and the community to address climate change?” They settled on the idea of turning Kew Beach public school, which their kids attended, into an electricity generator.

Over time Spencer pulled together dozens of like-minded locals and created the Beach Community Energy Co-op (BCEC), which was incorporated in 2012. He believes the organization’s structure as a co-operative has been central to its success and points to a survey conducted by a Kew Beach teacher that found community support for the solar panels at 85 per cent. “There’s something about a co-op,” explains Spencer. “You have to build consensus to move forward. You have to convince a lot of people to agree with you.”

Funding the project wasn’t simple. Bullfrog Power put in $25,000 — “right at the point we were about to give up!” – with half the overall capital coming from crowd sourcing and the other half from a bond offering. Notwithstanding the difficulties, Spencer is proud the money came from local folks. “It proves you can set up a solar array without corporate support. We did it with 150 community members.”

An energy activist since the 1970s, he’s motivated by a desire to move his province away from atomic energy – a direction he sees as wholly viable. “Ontario has 4,000 schools; almost none have solar on them. But parents and communities united can build solar and get us off nuclear. That’s my personal excitement.”

Beyond their wider environmental value, the panels have a host of benefits for the school. Place them on the roof and they start, sometimes subtly, to shift the institution’s culture. “Solar arrays organically build an ecological consciousness among kids, parents and staff,” observes Spencer. He makes the audacious claim that photovoltaics’ presence can alter the very words students use to describe their future. They come to frame it in more sanguine terms. “When you do solar arrays, people’s language changes – so the discourse becomes positive about tomorrow.” The technology isn’t neutral; it has an embedded optimism and, when deployed in educational settings, spurs an ethos of hopefulness.

Spencer’s vision is broad: he wants school-top arrays to serve whole neighborhoods. He suggests the Kew Beach site could provide electricity for nearby condos on Toronto’s Queen Street East. This would raise significant funds for the school board – BCEC pays rent for use of the roof – and help decentralize the province’s power production, making it more resilient.

The desire for Ontario to part company with large, centralized generators – particularly nuclear ones – is never far from Spencer’s mind. Today he sees this possibility as especially close. The economics work and the co-op model suggests a plausible route for the transition.

“Renewables are now just about the same cost as nuclear,” he says with satisfaction. “The tipping point has arrived.”

Gideon Forman is a climate change policy analyst at the David Suzuki Foundation.