Canmore Solar Initiative: Bringing renewable energy to Alberta’s Bow Valley

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Canmore Solar Initiative: bringing renewable energy to Alberta’s Bow Valley

Mountains, glacier-fed lakes, wildlife … and solar panels?

Solar panels have been popping up on many Canmore homes over the last few years, thanks in part to Canmore’s Solar Incentive Program.

“This is something tangible that homeowners can do,” said Lori Rissling Wynn, sustainability coordinator for the Town of Canmore. “A lot of times we feel we don’t have a lot of control in these choices, but a person absolutely does.”

Now in its fifth year, the program provides an opportunity for people in the community to invest in renewable energy by offering a financial incentive to residents and businesses to help offset the cost of purchasing and installing a solar system.

There were 15 solar incentives of $1,000 available in 2019, and recipients – chosen by a lottery – were notified in March. Funds for the program are identified annually in the town’s operating budget for “greenhouse gas mitigation activities.”

Rissling Wynn said the program is often oversubscribed. This year, 25 people submitted applications.

“It demonstrates the appetite the community has for the program,” said Rissling Wynn, who is responsible for administering the program, processing applications, managing the lottery and corresponding with successful recipients. “People are interested in contributing to the energy transition.”

For many individuals though, the upfront capital is one of the major barriers to solar installation; the Canmore Solar Initiative is meant to help reduce that barrier.

Even with the financial incentive, Rissling Wynn said they recognize a solar panel installation is a big economic decision, and families need to decide whether a solar system is the right fit for their home. But it’s an over-simplification to say that a solar panel system is too expensive as an investment for most homes.

“If you look at a solar panel system as an appliance that you are putting on your home, what other appliance pays you back? Eventually this will be paying you back dividends.”

Depending on the size of the system, it takes eight to 10 years to completely recover the capital cost, but most get at least a portion of their bills covered within the first year.

Moreover, installing a solar panel system on their home tends to have ripple effect — residents become increasing mindful about the amount of energy they use on a daily basis, like turning off lights and running the dishwasher during the day when the panels are generating power. By monitoring energy production versus household consumption, families can reduce energy costs by consuming power when the solar installation is producing energy.

“It’s important that we aren’t just telling people to do this, we are doing it ourselves, too.”
— Lori Rissling Wynn, on the role municipalities play to encourage residential solar installations

The solar energy investment doesn’t just benefit the homeowner. According to Rissling Wynn, the number of solar installers working in the valley has tripled since the initiative first started in Canmore, spurring the green economy and increasing employment opportunities.

Further, the increase in solar installations around town have helped to debunk the myth that solar energy was not possible in the valley. 

A report, commissioned by the Town of Canmore to evaluate the solar potential of the community, found that rooftop geometry and design has significantly more impact on solar potential than mountain shading and location within the valley. This bodes well for new residential developments in the community.

It’s not just residents and local businesses looking for opportunities to offset their energy usage.

“It’s important that we aren’t just telling people to do this,” said Rissling Wynn. “We are doing it ourselves, too,”

Within the next two years, Canmore will add five new solar panel installations to their municipal buildings, on top of the systems currently in operation, which include the solar photovoltaic systems installed on the roofs of the Civic Centre and Waste Management Centre. The town is also looking for opportunities for ground-mounted solar to help offset corporate energy usage.

“We are recognizing that the grid needs to be maintained, and renewable energy needs to be a part of that mix,” said Rissling Wynn.

For more information on how to undertake your own renewables project, check out the resources page.

Submit your new energy story here.

Geothermal Innovation in Alberta

Geothermal innovation in Alberta

The world’s first geothermal power plant was completed in 1914 in Italy. Fast forward more than 100 years, and Canada still does not have a single large-scale geothermal facility. Alberta company Terrapin hopes to change that.

Geothermal energy is a form of renewable energy harnessed from converting heat stored deep underground into electricity. Terrapin plans to build an eight-megawatt geothermal power generation facility near Hinton, Alta.

Sean Collins has worked in sustainable energy for about a decade, beginning with co-founding Student Energy – a global non-profit energy organization – and working for clean-tech companies in the province. After the Alberta Climate Leadership Plan was released in late 2015, Collins said he knew the electricity sector would have to change significantly following the coal phase-out. He founded Terrapin, a company focused on transforming waste heat and geothermal heat into usable energy. Now, he is the company’s president.

By phasing out coal, more renewable energy will be needed to make up for the gap in electricity supply and demand. Much of Alberta’s renewable energy will come from wind and solar power, which are intermittent, only producing electricity when the wind is blowing or when the sun is shining. One of the advantages of coal is that it can produce electricity all of the time. An advantage of geothermal is that it too can produce electricity on demand.

There’s not much difference between drilling an oil well and drilling a geothermal well
— Sean Collins

In principle geothermal seems straightforward, but there are at least 27 different technologies used to transform heat to electricity. Depending on the situation and heat source, some technologies perform better than others. Terrapin’s role is bringing expertise and understanding to which solutions are ideal.

Collins sees geothermal as a natural fit for Alberta.

“There’s not much difference between drilling an oil well and drilling a geothermal well,” he said, explaining Alberta has a lot of expertise in building massive facilities, such as billion-dollar oil and gas refineries, and these skills are easily transferable to building large-scale geothermal facilities.

Many predictions on global energy show oil and gas will still play a role 30 years from now, but there will be a massive increase in renewables. Collins considers this balance of energy sources as crucial. He says creating sustainable electricity will allow our oil and gas to be used most effectively, instead of for nearly everything as it has been for decades.

The price on carbon pollution has created an additional focus on renewable energy innovation.

“Alberta may be building our last pipeline,” said Collins. “We need to dig in and see how we play in the new world.”

To achieve this shift to renewable electricity, he says Alberta needs to be more entrepreneurial and ambitious.

“We as a province need to raise our risk factor.”

Learn more about Terrapin here.

For more information on clean tech projects and opportunities in Alberta, see our resources page.

Submit your own new energy story here.

Building your own Sun-In-A-Box


Building your own Sun-In-A-Box

After electrical engineering students Nathan Olson and David Roszko completed a research project involving medical electronics at the University of Alberta last year, they decided to try their hand at solar technology. They figured it would just be another project that began and ended in the classroom. But Roszko’s wife Ashley, a graduate student in Community Engagement at the University of Alberta, had a bigger idea.

“I was like, [this project] is so cool; we could use it to teach people about renewable energy and how solar power works,” says Ashley Roszko.

In turn, the trio began a year-long interdisciplinary project teaching people how to build personal solar units, which they called a Sun-In-A-Box, with the broader goal of driving grassroots engagement with solar technologies.

“There were kids working with seniors … someone holding a screwdriver while someone else screwed in a panel. It was just so neat.”

Practically speaking, a Sun-In-A-Box is a beefed-up solar-powered charger. The wooden frame, about the size of a shoebox, contains a battery pack, a pivoting solar panel and a small computer that can be programmed for various tasks. The box’s 12-volt rechargeable battery can charge or power anything that plugs into a USB port.

“It was designed to support itself for two days without any sun,” said Olson, one of the two electrical engineering students who designed the box.

That means it can charge about five phones before it needs a new dose of sunlight. In addition, with a few modifications, the wooden box can be rugged and weather proof, and can be used camping, or left outside for longer stretches to harness the sun’s energy for daily use.


Sounds cool, and maybe you want one of your own, right? But you can’t buy a Sun-In-A-Box. You have to build it. That’s the point.

The venture was created as an education project – a way to get kids and community members excited about solar energy, and to scale the power of the sun down to something people can understand and use themselves.

Once the two engineers had developed and finalized the unit specs – the parts cost about $350 and can be found at Canadian Tire, Home Depot, any electronics shop, or just lying around your house – Ashley kicked her community engagement skills into action. The trio gave presentations to elementary schools and community groups in the Edmonton area, showing participants how the Sun-In-A-Box works. In July, thanks to the support of EcoCity Edmonton, they put on a workshop through the Alberta Green Economy Network with the Edmonton Federation of Community Leagues, Relay Education and the Riverdale Community to teach people how to build a Sun-In-A-Box.

Ashley Roszko said the workshop participants’ diversity and cooperation was inspiring.

“There were kids working with seniors … someone holding a screwdriver while someone else screwed in a panel,” she said. “It was just so neat.”


From an engineering perspective, Olson said it was interesting to work with an interdisciplinary team, sharing solar technology with people who aren’t technical, and helping them make it a reality.

“It’s easy to get siloed and you don’t see what’s on the other side of the fence,” he said. “As engineers, we didn’t really consider the community engagement aspect.”

Being able to share their knowledge and passion with others who haven’t thought much about renewable energy was an exciting opportunity, Ashley Roszko said, especially when it came to hearing people’s ideas for what to do with a Sun-In-A-Box. Beyond charging phones, people suggested hooking up a wildlife camera, or powering a pump to use the water from a rain barrel or plugging in a soil sensor.

“[It was cool to see] what sustainability looks like to them when they realized that they could actually build their own,” she said.

Equally important, she added, is that there isn’t just one way to make a Sun-In-A-Box.

“We’re trying to show people something you can do, but you don’t have to do it exactly as we did,” she said, pointing out there are plenty of improvements people can make. Indeed, the project is open-source, and they are continuing to update documents and directions online, so that people can make their own suggestions and customizations.

“That’s one of the areas we hope it will continue to grow,” she said.

Detailed instructions on how to build your own Sun-In-A-Box can be found here.

For more information on how to undertake your own education project, check out the resources page.

Submit your new energy story here.

Solar Power Can Be a Community Effort

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Solar Power Can Be a Community Effort

In Edmonton, almost every neighbourhood has a community league. These locally elected boards of community volunteers do the work of running facilities and programs and engaging in civic issues. There are 158 such leagues in the city. It’s the most grassroots level of representation we have and these dedicated volunteers drive the communities’ agenda.

When the Evansdale Community League started a big infrastructure refurbishment project, it raised $800,000 to repave the ball hockey and basketball courts, install a new outdoor hockey rink and build an accompanying winter sports facility. As part of that project it also installed super-efficient LED rink lights and two LED parking lot lights. The icing on the cake: a 13.6 kilowatt solar system cost only $43,500 to install.

Gordon Howell is the electrical engineer who designed the system. By his calculations, this project will generate about half of the electricity used over the course of a year.

“Over the longer term, it’s a phenomenal investment,” says Howell. Making the decision even easier was that the City of Edmonton and the government of Alberta covered 85 per cent of the upfront costs with an infrastructure grant. With that, the solar project has a simple payback of four to five years, depending on the price of electricity. The final cost of the system came in at $3.20 per installed watt.

"Each of these [projects] feels like a small piece of the puzzle, but when you add them up, it’s the only way you actually get any real change"

“All the money that you save in the meantime [with solar], you can put towards community sports programs and the like,” says Howell.

Although it’s a small project, both the LEDs and solar system tie into the City of Edmonton’s community energy transition plan. The City announced recently that it wants 100 percent of Edmonton’s electricity generated from renewable sources by 2030. Community league roofs are a great place to start.

Ben Henderson is an Edmonton city councilor. He supported the energy transition plan and considers projects like this to be crucial to achieving those goals.

“Each of these [projects] feels like a small piece of the puzzle, but when you add them up, it’s the only way you actually get any real change,” says Henderson.

“Our energy transition strategy is about two things. It’s about how we can up our game and show leadership in terms of our own practice, but it’s also creating incentives that make it easier for businesses, for [community] leagues, for all sorts of non-profit groups, and for individuals on their own houses to be able to step up as well and take away some the real or imagined barriers that are stopping people from making those choices.”

Read the full story on Green Energy Futures here

For more information on how to undertake your own renewables project, check out the resources page.

Submit your new energy story here.

Canada’s First Concentrated Solar Thermal Plant


Canada’s first concentrated solar thermal plant

Medicine Hat is called the gas city, and for good reason. It sits on sizable natural gas reserves, which meant the city never suffered at budget time. In 2007, the city started down a path that should serve as a model to those lucky places that are endowed with fossil fuels.

The city’s one-megawatt concentrated solar thermal plant is the first of its kind in Canada. Row after row of large concave metal mirrors glow in the sun on the hill above the Trans-Canada Highway.

By focusing the sun’s rays onto a point, you can generate incredible amounts of heat. This project creates temperatures of 340 degrees Celsius. That heat is used to make steam, which spins a turbine and generates electricity.

"We had to reinvest, we had to diversify because all of our eggs were in that one basket"

It’s the farthest north a concentrated solar thermal project has ever been built, yet it makes sense in Medicine Hat. This is one of the sunniest cities in Canada, receiving more direct sunlight annually than Miami.

Concentrated solar thermal was the original renewable energy pacesetter. Massive projects were built in Spain, California and other sunny, arid places in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But solar photovoltaic modules, the familiar solar panels, have surpassed concentrated solar thermal. There are four gigawatts of installed concentrated solar thermal projects in the world but more than 300 gigawatts of installed solar PV.

The Medicine Hat project cost $9 million, with the funding split evenly between the city, the Province of Alberta and the Alberta Climate Change Emissions Management Corporation (CCEMC), the Province’s carbon technology mitigation fund. This installation works in concert with the city utility’s neighboring 204-megawatt natural gas fired power plant.

“We knew at the time we had to give back in some way. We had to reinvest, we had to diversify because all of our eggs were in that one basket, which was natural gas,” says Medicine Hat mayor Ted Clugston.

Read the full story on Green Energy Futures here

For more information on how to undertake your own renewables project, check out the resources page.

Submit your new energy story here.

Green Acres, one of Western Canada's largest solar farms


Green Acres, One of WEstern Canada's Largest Solar Farms

The Green Acres Hutterite colony has a population of about 80 people. Breakfast and dinner are communal while lunch is eaten in the home. Despite their apparent quaintness, the Hutterites are ambitious industrial-scale farmers. This colony near Bassano farms 20,000 acres, runs a hog and chicken operation, operates Crowfoot Plastics, a one-of-a-kind plastics recycling plant, and more than 7,600 solar modules in its two megawatt solar farm. Once you understand a bit about Hutterite culture, their embrace of solar power makes sense.

“It still blows me away to this day,” says Jake Hofer, Green Acres’s electrician. “You look at the system, day after day, and there’s nothing moving, no moving parts, and yet it creates all this energy.”

“Every piece of our colony’s livelihood is an asset and is very important,” says Jake’s brother, Dan Hofer. “You grow and supply your own meat, you grow and supply your own garden and vegetables as much as possible, so [solar power] falls kind of in the same category. It’s self-sufficient. You’re relying on your own resources; you’re not relying on someone else.”

Building a two-megawatt solar system is a little more ambitious than planting potatoes. It required an investment of $4.8 million. But after careful analysis the numbers seemed to add up nicely and the banks agreed.

“We did it for economic reasons,” says Dan. “They didn’t have an issue at all. After seeing some of the numbers, how the economics would work out, they were fully supportive.”

For project developer SkyFire Energy, the project was a first in terms of scale.

“The solar resource here is some of the best in Canada,” says David Vonesch, Skyfire’s chief operating officer. “A system installed right here will produce about 50 or 60% more than if the same system were installed in Germany, where there’s more solar [installed] than anywhere in the world.”

The wind resource in Southern Alberta is also among the best in Canada. So why did the colony choose solar and not wind? “Maintenance was one of the big issues,” chuckles Jake. “And I’m terribly scared of heights.”

Green Acres pushed the envelope on the cost of the solar. They secured an original quote to build their two-megawatt solar farm for $2.80 a watt, but reduced that to $2.40 a watt through their own labour.

The result is a payback of 15 years if electricity prices remain low, or as few as 10 years if they start to escalate.

“I think because of this system, because of Green Acres taking this leap, we’ve seen increased interest in these types of systems, and this scale of project,” says Vonesch. “It’s taken the ‘what’s possible’ to a new level, and lots of people are looking at it and following suit.”

Read the full story on Green Energy Futures here

For more information on how to undertake your own renewables project, check out the resources page.

Submit your new energy story here.

Starland Farmers Love the Sun

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Starland Farmers Love the Sun

Bob Sargent, a farmer who also runs an oilfield services company and serves as a counselor, lives in Starland County north of Drumheller. He never would have installed his 10-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system if it hadn’t been for the county. Matthew Kreke is a project manager for Starland County and he says it all started with water.

“We wanted to bring rural water to most of our residents. That requires a lot of pumping and a lot of these pumping stations are very remote. So, originally we’re trying to look at ways to cut costs with our energy for bringing water to our citizens. And that’s sort of how we stumbled onto solar. From there we’ve been involved with several different programs trying to bring solar out and we’ve seen the cost fall from there,” says Kreke.

All told, the county runs 65 kilowatts of solar at pumping stations and community buildings.

Inspired by their success, Starland County wanted to help its residents take advantage of this technology as well, so they developed the Starland County Solar Incentive working with the Municipal Climate Change Action Centre and Bullfrog Power. The goal was to install 100 kilowatts of solar and they wanted to keep it affordable.

Through discussions with farmers, Starland County found a tipping point. If they could bring the payback down from 20 plus years they would have no trouble attracting people to the program. To bring the costs down they worked hard to develop a creative and affordable template for 10-kilowatt solar systems.

With the help of Bullfrog Builds and the Municipal Climate Change Action Centre they were also able to offer a grant of up to $5000. With farmers doing some of the installation themselves, plus tax incentives they got the payback scenario down to 10 to 13 years and the cost down to under $30,000.

“Some of these farmers out here… have lots of land, they’re comfortable putting together machinery, taking care of equipment and they also make large capital expenditures on an ongoing basis, so a typical farmer in our county isn’t going to be scared away from a $30,000 purchase,” says Kreke.

Sargent is enthused, and already predicting better than planned performance. “Originally I thought roughly a 10-year payback, but I’m going to be less than eight years. But there is a 25-year warranty, so in eight years I’ll get my money back plus I’ve still got 17 years left of warranty,” says Sargent.

Sargent says he and his farmer brethren are comfortable thinking outside the box. This small county in the middle of the Prairies is a leader. They have pioneered an affordable template for farmers to add solar to their operation.

Read the full story on Green Energy Futures here

For more information on how to undertake your own renewables project, check out the resources page.

Submit your new energy story here.

Even Students are Getting Solar Right

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Even Students are Getting Solar Right

Tucked within Cochrane High School in Cochrane about a half-hour west of Calgary is the – the Sustainable Development Committee, a small volunteer club. Behind the bland name is an overachieving group of students that has raised more than $149,000 and built more than half a dozen renewable energy projects.

Teachers Stephanie Bennett and Earl Binder helped start the group in 2004. Since then, the committee has been responsible for installing three solar PV projects on the school roof, a micro-wind turbine, waste heat recovery and a solar thermal hot water system, and those are just the energy generation-related projects. They’ve installed a school garden fed with rainwater from the roof, LED lights, waterless urinals, dual flush toilets, motion activated lights, a solar-powered energy efficient scoreboard and have done a ton of outreach in the community and nearby schools.

Jay Heule is a Cochrane High grad and former sustainable development committee member. He’s now in his second year of engineering at the University of Calgary.

“Growing up in Cochrane with a bit more of a redneck kind of feeling in town it was a different outlook on how we could approach the environment with solutions for problems that we’re facing here in the 21st century,” he says.

It hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows for the sustainable development committee. When they decided to build a five-kilowatt, 18-metre high wind turbine on school property a vocal group of neighbours responded.

“There was a really loud group, it was called, ‘The No Turbines in Town Coalition,’ and they were in the newspaper, they were in the media and we really didn’t want to play that game so we just said, “Alright, we’ll go through the school board, we’ll jump through all the extra hoops,” says Adam Sibbald, another sustainable development committee alumni.

The students turned their attention from fundraising and project development to engaging in real-life politics. It’s a similar challenge renewable energy proponents have faced in other places – angry residents who don’t want development in their backyard and a leery local government.

They held three community consultation meetings learning how to do good public consultation after “getting shellacked” at the first one. The students applied to the town of Cochrane, which put the brakes on the project but decided it needed a clear framework to deal with energy projects in town.

While the student group ultimately failed in their effort to erect the turbine, the push from the students led the town of Cochrane to create its renewable energy framework. Any future renewable energy projects (including small wind) have a much clearer expectation of what they need to do in order to be approved.

Perhaps the most important part is on the human development side. The experience they’re getting in fundraising, communications, working as a team and with regulatory bodies is invaluable as they go to post-secondary and join the workforce.

Read the full story Green Energy Futures here

For more information on how to undertake your own renewables project, check out the resources page.

Submit your new energy story here.

Calgary’s Wind-powered LRT

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Calgary’s wind-powered LRT

Calgary’s C-Train light-rail system is overwhelmingly popular with residents, boasting an average weekday ridership of 325,000. It has kick-started smarter, denser development around its stations. And best of all, it is 100 per cent powered by renewable energy.

Now, the LRT does not run on electrons delivered straight from wind turbines — instead, it’s connected to the standard electricity grid, which is still dominated by coal and natural gas power. In 2001, Calgary city council voted to purchase 21,000 megawatt-hours of wind power a year for 10 years. That’s how much electricity the LRT uses in a year. Twelve wind turbines were erected to fulfill Calgary’s investment. By purchasing wind power, Calgary Transit reports it is avoiding the emission of 56,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.

In 2012, Calgary went all-in on renewable energy, purchasing enough renewable power for all of the city’s operations. Because of this, two wind farms were built, totaling 144 megawatts of installed wind capacity.

While the C-Train is completely wind powered, the City’s other operations use a mix of renewables: wind, hydro, biomass and solar power. The power purchase agreement totals 450,000 megawatt-hours a year, or the equivalent power demand of over 65,000 Calgary homes.

Cities like Calgary are playing a leadership role without breaking the bank. While the City of Calgary wouldn’t disclose the terms of their power purchase agreement with ENMAX, wind is the cheapest source of electricity in Alberta. The first round of the Renewable Energy Program announced in December 2017 yielded the cheapest wind price in Canada at 3.7 cents per kilowatt-hour while the average price for electricity from coal was 7.7 cents per-kilowatt hour.

Doubly cool is the phenomenal ridership rate Calgary has achieved for its LRT, logging 102 million trips in 2017. That is reducing congestion, bringing down emissions and building the clean energy economy of the future.

A full three-car C-Train carries 600 people. Not only does the C-Train take a lot of cars off the road, it also helps the city grow in a smarter, denser way.

“Our next step is a big shift, and that’s transit-oriented development. That means making sure more people are living at the transit nodes outside of the downtown core. That’s not something we’ve done a lot of in the past in Calgary, but it has to happen now,” says Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi.

With 46 stations and 118 km of track, that thinking makes sense. When you start talking about location efficient housing, more people living closer to an LRT station means less money spent on transportation by residents, less pollution and less congestion on the roads.

Read the full story on Green Energy Futures here

For more information on how to undertake your own renewables project, check out the resources page.

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Solar in Oil Country

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Solar in Oil Country

Brazeau County is located to the west of Drayton Valley, about 150 kilometers southwest of Edmonton, in the heart of oil and gas country. Its economic engine is oil and gas, forestry, agriculture and tourism.

Bart Guyon is a rancher and businessman. Decked out in his trademark suspenders, the Reeve of Brazeau County certainly looks the part.

“We saw the instability of the whole electrical industry and who is providing power. We saw that the governments were looking at starting the carbon tax so we just thought we’d try something that might be able to help stabilize our energy costs,” says Guyon.

“We know that the only place the power prices will go is up. And when you see the carbon tax, we’ve got $20 bucks a tonne right now and another $10 bucks next year, Trudeau wants to add $20,” says Guyon. “You never know where that’s going to end.”

So, Brazeau County started looking at solar energy. They have since installed 900 solar modules on county buildings.

“We’ve put solar panels on our county office building where we hold our meetings, we’ve got it on our shop, we’ve got it on our water facilities and we’ve got it on our fire station at Lodgepole,” says Guyon.

Guyon says the county has looked at numerous alternative energy strategies such as hydro, run-of-river and wind, as well as combined heat and power, a more efficient way of using natural gas.

“We’re clearly an oil and gas town, that’s what fuels this county. We’ve got forestry and they are a significant contributor to jobs and we’ve got agriculture and tourism, but clearly it’s oil and gas. What we are trying to do is take a look at the different opportunities with alternative energy. Regardless of how efficient we are at producing our hydrocarbons the world is moving to alternative energy and we need to be part of that program,” say Guyon.

It’s a forward-looking strategy that Guyon says will serve residents and the county well.

It’s one thing to generate clean electricity, but Guyon now wants to complete an energy audit on county buildings to find savings using energy efficiency. “Grandpa said there’s two ways to make money, the money you make and the money you save.”

Read the full story on Green Energy Futures here

For more information on how to undertake your own renewables project, check out the resources page.

Submit your new energy story here.