19 February 2017

Getting Down to Brass Tacks and Solar Panels

I took the international students in my first year (university) sustainability course on a field trip the other day. We boarded a tiny bus and went to Sooke, British Columbia (south tip of Vancouver Island in Canada) to visit the T'sou-ke First Nation's solar energy initiatives.

My students were all very impressed, each for a different reason. Our tour began with a traditional ceremony with a warm and wonderful elder and spiritual healer, Shirley. It included music, prayer, smudging, a water blessing, and a welcome. Many of the young people were moved by the reverence of this ceremony, and the many ways that it incorporated (included and embodied) elements of the natural world.

Our tour of the three solar installations (students were impressed by the bank of batteries, getting up close to some photovoltaic panels, and the fact that the T'sou-ke First Nation is making money by selling energy back to the grid) was punctuated with other experiences. On the bank of the river, we noted the white shell midden (an ancient garbage dump of sorts), which also contains archaeological treasures such as arrowheads, utensils made from antlers, rock tools, and beads from the early days of trading with Europeans. We also learned that during the salmon run each fall, the sand bars are filled with bears taking their share of the fish!

Next, we got to see a 54 foot long dugout canoe, made in the 1990s from one very large tree trunk. We were regaled with stories of tribal journeys — great ocean trips from one community to the next all along the coast, with days full of paddling followed by dancing, drumming and feasting to all hours of the morning. Only three rules for these great celebrations: no alcohol, no drugs, no cell phones! (My students didn't think they'd survive. ;-)

Finally, we saw a Nissan Leaf electric car and charging station up close and personal. People can (and do) drive from all across North America to charge up for free at the charging station at the T'sou-ke First Nation! We also saw and learned about solar thermal installations that pre-heat water for hot water tanks.

Perhaps the niftiest story we heard (the day after discussing the Just Transition to Green Jobs in class) was that when the T'sou-ke Nation put out tenders for the solar installations, they said they wanted the winning contractor to not only train some T'sou-ke members but also then hire them to help with the installation. That way, there's more of a sense of ownership of the project, several members have new job skills, and repair and maintenance is done in-house.

Once inside again, the students were invited to take back their power by lowering their own energy consumption as much as possible. This, it turns out, ought to be the first step before determining what solar energy capacity you need to put on your roof. (I rememember Amory Lovins calling this "nega-watts" — the energy not needed due to conservation efforts.) Each wrote their conservation commitments on a paper leaf and taped it to a Tree of Life poster on the wall. 

Our host, Andrew, wrapped up the session with an explanation of the S-curve, sharing that the price of solar panels has dropped so much that we're on the verge of an explosion. "If you were thinking of investing in solar," he said, "now's the time."

Shirley, the elder, said a farewell prayer on our behalf, and then it was time to say goodbye. All the way back to the university, the students shared with me their favourite moments. I could tell it was a worthwhile field trip for them, as it helped them see in action several of the principles of sustainable development that we've been learning about in class.

Believe it or not, that story was just a preamble for what I really want to talk to you about today. I found the field trip quite inspiring myself, and especially so when I came home to an email about a certificate program in community energy management. My interest was immediately piqued. Six courses make up the certificate:
  • Intro to Community Energy & Emissions Planning 
  • Community-Based Renewable Energy 
  • Green Energy & Local Economic Development 
  • Financing & Governance for Green Energy Systems 
  • Reducing Energy Use in New & Existing Buildings 
  • Low Carbon Transportation
For a few minutes, I was really quite excited by the prospect of taking these courses and really helping my community make its way to localized renewable energy. But then I remembered something. I don't "get" energy. As I've admitted here before, I was hit by lightning as a child and I've been afraid of electricity ever since. So I've never learned about it, experimented with it, or done anything more than carefully plugged in an appliance. 

When I realized that the learning curve for me would be like pushing a boulder up a steep hill, I immediately forwarded the email to people in my community who are already involved with and steeped in the world of renewable energy. 

I don't have to take these courses. I am a teacher, but also a connector of people to learning opportunities. That is one of the gifts I can give to the climate change movement. 

Here's the information, in case you're interested in the Community Energy Management Certificate. The courses are online, so you could take them from anywhere in the world.


And to learn more about the T'sou-ke Nation's solar project, visit http://www.tsoukenation.com/first-nation-takes-lead-on-solar-power/. Be sure to watch the movie over in the righthand column. It's quite inspiring!

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I would appreciate hearing your thoughts or questions on this post or anything else you've read here. What is your take on courage and compassion being an important part of the solution to the climate change emergency?