The recently-built Wells Gray Education and Research Centre received a solar grid upgrade as part of a program offered through TRU and funded by the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Training. (Stephanie Hagenaars photo)

Students receive hands-on training installing solar for Clearwater research facility

A $200,000 grant paid for training and certificaqtion for 35 Red Seal B.C. electricians

A research centre in Upper Clearwater now has the ability to be self-sufficient in a power outage, thanks to a university program and government funding.

The Wells Gray Education and Research Centre is the site of two cohort practical projects that saw the installation of a 48-panel roof-mounted solar array and battery back-up system.

Half of the array feeds into the grid and the other half into an essential loads back-up battery system, powering the septic, water pump, heat trays under the water pipes, lighting circuits, internet and a couple of convenience plugs. The building runs completely off of electricity, with no gas or propane.

“The goal was to make it as sustainable as possible,” said Amie Schellenberg, electrical instructor for TRU’s School of Trade and Technology. “In B.C., we have a lot of green energy with our hydro, so it just didn’t make sense to bring in a bunch of fossil fuels. That’s not where TRU is trying to go with all our facilities.”

The program received a $200,000 grant from the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Training to put on a micro-credential renewable energy program. The certificate program was offered free of charge to qualified electrical Red Seal students.

Thirty-five students participated in the program, which consisted of four weeks online training and any additional training for their hands-on projects. They were then divided into four cohorts, which wrapped up on April 2. After completing the program, each student writes the CSA exam to become a certified solar installer. The exam is usually around $350, but the grant funds were able to cover the costs, allowing students to take the entire program for free.

Two of the cohorts were at the research centre, the first solarizing (installing the solar panels and inverters) and the second installing the back-up power supply.

Don McKechnie, who recently started a local company, Dunn Peak Electric, was one of the students in the program. He told The Times he got into the electrical trade because of its versatility and importance.

“You always need an electrician,” McKechnie said, adding he’s enjoyed the program. “I enjoy it all, everything is super interesting.”

He is also a first-year carpentry apprentice, working towards becoming a licensed carpenter. Once he’s done that, McKecknie said he wants to build turn-key off-grid cabins.

“I think that would be a good product for people to buy,” he said.

The solar install program has helped him get one step closer to his dream. McKecknie, who lives in Blackpool, was able to attend both cohorts. In addition to the solar project, he said he received training and tickets for fall arrest and elevated platforms.

The students also got to work next to some of the best in the industry when it comes to alternative energy: Riverside Energy Systems (RES)— owner Ben Giudici helped develop Planning & Decision Guide for Solar PV Systems, an install and requirement guide on the Natural Resources Canada website.

“Off-grid, it’s essential, in my opinion — it changes your life,” said Chris Irving, who joined RES in 2016 as an electrical apprentice and was assisting the students with their solar project.

He described a home they worked on, where a lady has lived for 20 or 30 years using only gas lanterns with no power to the home. When she developed a respiratory illness and could no longer use the lanterns, the RES team installed a solar grid with battery bank, giving her the ability to light her home once again.

A solar grid back-up is becoming more and more popular, said Irving, whether as a way to offset electrical bill costs or to ensure there is power to the home during an outage, or to simply “future-proof” their home.

Indeed, self-sufficient or back-up systems are becoming increasingly popular for those in smaller communities that are serviced by a single transmission line — like those in the North Thompson Valley.

“The grid is more fragile than you think,” said McKechnie.

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