A group of students from Carihi Secondary is calling on the city to replace its street lights with solar-powered lamps.
One city official doubts whether the system is practical for Campbell River, but the students say it could save money and reduce pollution in the age of climate change. Meanwhile, BC Hydro says that energy conservation and climate change awareness are both steps in the right direction.
“It produces its own energy, so it doesn’t need to take energy from what we create it at the dam or anything else like that,” said Grade 11 student Wyatt Huffman, who dropped by the Mirror’s office with classmate Bradley Cooke to talk about the solar lights proposal.
“And it’s completely green, so it doesn’t emit any gases or anything harmful to the environment,” Huffman said.
Earlier this month, they launched an online petition for the cause with fellow students Paul Smurthwaite and Sam Gale as part of a chemistry class at Carihi. Their project involved taking action in the field of green chemistry, an area of science geared towards reducing human impacts on nature.
Electricity production in B.C. accounts for one per cent of the province’s greenhouse gases, compared to 10 per cent in the rest of Canada and 33 per cent in the United States, according to BC Hydro.
And while hydro doesn’t pollute the atmosphere, Huffman and Cooke said it makes sense to conserve energy by using off-grid power sources.
Self-sufficient solar projects would free up hydro energy that could then be sold in places that otherwise use less clean sources, Cooke said.
“With these lights, they wouldn’t have to be hooked up to the grid, so they’d leave even more power for us to sell and make money off of,” Cooke said.
Cooke and Huffman said they’re both concerned about the effects of climate change.
“I’d like to see humans make a movement to keep our planet the way it is, and not make it unlivable anymore,” said Huffman. “And I think that using (solar) panels to replace the use of energy that can go elsewhere is a good start.”
The students pointed to the example of Hamilton, Ont., which installed 40 solar-powered lamps in a park in the Niagara Escarpment in 2015. To save battery power, the lights dim automatically until someone approaches. The project reduces emissions by 2.5 tonnes per year and saves $1,500 in energy costs annually, according to the city.
Huffman said that similar units installed in Campbell River would initially be expensive, but would pay for themselves over time.
Greenshine New Energy, a California-based solar lighting company, says on its website that solar LED street lights – including the pole, base and fixture – cost about twice as much as traditional street lamps. But government incentive programs and free solar energy can result in savings of roughly $2,800 over the course of 10 years, according to the company.
As for concerns that the Pacific northwest is too cloudy for solar power, the students said this wouldn’t be a barrier.
“Even if it’s overcast, they’re still charging and producing energy,” Huffman said.
The students have already made the final presentation for their course, but they’re still looking for signatories on their online petition.
It had garnered 51 signatures by Wednesday morning.
Thomas Diesch, who teaches grade 11 chemistry at Carihi, said he tries to get students to engage with their community and apply their learning to real-world examples. Other student projects have focused on issues including microplastics and food sustainability.
Diesch said he will join the students at city council if they ultimately make a formal presentation.
“This is a big step for these grade elevens,” Diesch said.
City ‘a ways off’ from solar
But the city isn’t ready for solar street lights, according to Drew Hadfield, director of operations for the City of Campbell River.
“I think we are a ways off to look at this for anything other than decorative street lighting in our community,” said Hadfield in an email.
Possible limitations include “angle of the sun, tree canopy, charging capacity, storage capacity of batteries to the street light, number of days without sunlight to charge, etc.,” Hadfield said.
The city already uses solar power for all flashing lights at crosswalks and is replacing its high-pressure sodium street lights – the kind that give off an orange glow – with more efficient LED lights.
Asked if he had a message for the students, he said the city is “always looking at opportunities to reduce its cost to operate and as new technology improves, changes will be made to also improve the city’s infrastructure.”
He added, “While we are not ready to move to a solar options for the community’s streetlights, we have moved to reduce consumption of electricity by retrofitting the city-owned streetlights with LED fixtures and continue to work with BC Hydro to see the same changes with their streetlights.”
LED fixtures reduce energy consumption to 25-30 per cent of the old fixtures, Hadfield said.
BC Hydro spokesperson Stephen Watson declined to comment on the students’ proposal, but said in an email, “I think generally climate change awareness and thinking of ways to decrease the impact is excellent.”
He also encouraged efforts to conserve energy, saying that reduced demand on B.C.’s system frees up more power for export – and reduces the need to build more facilities over time.
“By all means, people who use solar, or small wind turbines, or small Pelton wheels for water flow all help,” he said.
He pointed to the example of Lasqueti Island, where residents use various kinds of small generators, including solar, to keep the community off BC Hydro’s grid.
“Energy conservation is a key component within BC Hydro’s plan to meet future electricity demand,” Watson said.
B.C. trades on the electricity market with the United States and, to a lesser extent, Alberta, according to the NEB.
Over the years, the province has often been a net importer of electricity, but B.C. exported 5.5 terrawatt-hours of electricity in 2016.