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Group seeks city support to build solar project on rec centre roof

It's a 'pretty exciting project,' says backer of plan to build a 150 kilowatt solar installation
rooftop of rec centre
A citizens group, Orillia Community Energy, is seeking city support to create a solar project on the rooftop of the Orillia Recreation Centre under construction on West Street.

A group of Orillians have a bright idea. And they hope it generates support from city hall.

On Monday night, a trio of citizens behind the Orillia Community Energy (OCE) project pitched a plan to turn the roof of the new recreation facility into a giant solar farm.

The group wants to create a 150-kilowatt solar installation on the 11,000-square-foot flat roof of the building under construction on West Street. City officials confirm the structure can support the solar panels.

But to turn the vision into a reality, the group not only needs the city’s stamp of approval, they need about $300,000. And, they have a plan on how to generate the necessary funds.

“We are here seeking support for what we think is a pretty exciting project,” said Gord Ball, noting the idea was born from the Sunshine Initiative, a program started several years ago by Orillia Mayor Steve Clarke to develop creative ideas to make Orillia better.

Ball said his group’s goal is to help the city tackle climate change and “how we could, eventually, approach energy independence” through renewable energy.

While municipal support is key, Ball said the goal is to engage citizens and spark a grassroots movement.

“The goal is to build citizen interest in generating local renewable power,” said Ball, adding it’s similar to encouraging citizens to grow their own food. “We want to grow our own power.”

With that in mind, the group envisions an odometer-style, real-time solar production monitoring screen in the recreation centre’s lobby.

They would like to see “descriptive signage” accompany the screen in addition to an aerial photo of the project and an area to recognize private and public donors.

While council seemed supportive of the concept, no decision was made. Instead, councillors voted to send the idea to staff to provide a report on the potential implications of green-lighting such a project.

The key issue is expected to be financial.

The OCE plans to embark on a fundraising campaign to find both private donors and corporate donors.

They are also asking the city to chip in in various ways. They want the municipality to create a restricted renewable energy fund that would serve as bank of sorts to help fund the ambitious project.

They are asking the city to re-invest the savings from the rooftop solar system in addition to the money currently earned via rent income from Orillia Power’s other rooftop solar systems on city-owned properties (such as Nordia) into that fund.

Coun. Ted Emond balked at that part of the plan. He said the rent money helps fund roof repairs and maintenance costs.

He suggested the group, “as opposed to sneaking in the back door” with such a scheme, be “up front” and simply ask for a grant.

Emond also thought the group should start smaller. He wondered if “building up from the bottom has a great deal more potential to influence” the community compared to a “signature project.”

Ball said the group considered multiple approaches, including smaller projects. In the end, they intentionally chose this approach.

“We would like to make a splash and draw some attention,” said Ball, who noted the proponents’ eyes “boggled with the opportunity to do something significant.

“We feel, out of this will spawn local, individual, small-scale” projects led by inspired local citizens.

And while logistics and funding options remain unclear, other councillors expressed support, in principle, of the project.

Coun. David Campbell lauded the “awesome concept” and quipped it’s a project that “shows the power of the Sunshine Initiative.”

He wondered if the project could grow to individual homes.

“Indeed, we have talked about that,” said Ball, noting there may be opportunities for licensing agreements that could be used for both public and private projects.

Coun. Jay Fallis said he was “very excited about the project” and was encouraged to see a letter of support, and promise of financial assistance from Bullfrog Power.

Coun. Tim Lauer also applauded the project.

“I think the most interesting part might be the display inside the building,” Lauer said, referencing the proposed live-monitoring system. “That could be a huge tool for education.”

Council will now wait for a staff report on the matter.