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Whitchurch-Stouffville Residents Putting the 'Community' in 'Community Power'
Community group holds first public meeting for cooperatively-owned solar power in Whitchurch-Stouffville, ON.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
This quote from Margaret Meade welcomed participants to Whitchurch-Stouffville Community Energy Co-operative's Inc. (WSCEC) first public meeting last Tuesday. It was clearly understood from the get-go that this particular small group of citizens from Whitchurch-Stouffville did not doubt their own capacity to build a better world for future generations.
Their strong belief in their local community took the shape of the WSCEC, which they established with the mandate of spurring behavioural, environmental and social change through community-owned renewable energy projects. On top of these, they do have another mandate; to offer a very reasonable return to the co-operative's shareholders on their investment through a 20-year feed-in-tariff (FIT) contract with the Ontario government.
They held their Community Launch meeting, entitled ''Energy Solutions For The Next Generation'', in order to introduce the co-operative and its vision to the wider community. The meeting was attended by an interested crowd, some coming down to Stouffville from surrounding towns and villages.
WSCEC had its genesis in March 2011 when Harry French, a Director at the Ontario Sustainable Association who also happens to be a Stouffville resident, presented the idea of a community-owned renewable energy project to the Town Council. An offer to participate in this renewable energy scheme was published by the local newspaper Stouffville Tribune shortly afterwards, which resulted in the forming of an initial steering committee of 10 local residents. These individuals varied in their professional backgrounds and brought different skills to the table including financial, technical and marketing expertise. In fact, 4 of these individuals already had solar panels installed on their residential roofs.
As their initial project, WSCEC is planning to install a 250kW rooftop solar system on the roof the Clippers Sports Complex in Stouffville.
''This way, our renewable energy project will have high visibility and help us with our mission to educate the public around the benefits of renewable energy'', said Harry French, President of WSCEC, during the public meeting.
Audrey O'Handley, the Director of the co-op added: ''Children and youth who attend the sports complex will also be exposed to our solar system on a daily basis; this brings tremendous educational benefits.''
What excites and motivates WSCEC members the most is undertaking this project in a 'community' manner.
''Renewable energy is a booming industry and, especially with the existence of feed-in-tariffs, is a very viable investment to make. Private developers are all over these projects. But what we are looking to do here is to do this as a community, so that we can make those economic benefits trickle down to local communities and show what the power of people can achieve'' said Audrey O'Handley, to a crowd curious about the current state of the renewable energy sector in Ontario and beyond.
In line with their community-based approach, they decided that the co-operative ownership structure was the most appropriate model. This way, they could build on the power of the local community, while also encouraging further community-building.
Thomas Schmidt, WSCEC's Vice-President, explained how besides making decisions regarding the co-operative's operations, democratic processes among members will also be used to benefit the wider community: ''On top of providing them a good return on their investment, WSCEC will also allow its members to democratically decide how the surplus dollars will be spent. These funds may go towards supporting another local organization, or funding a new renewable energy project; it is up to the members to make that decision''.
The group applied for a Community Energy Partnerships Program (CEPP) grant, and subsequently received $66,000 to conduct feasibility studies last October. Officially incorporated in December 2011, WSCEC is now looking to recruit 40 'Founders' Club' members to invest $1,000 each in order to raise the necessary amount to qualify for the next round of CEPP grant. Loans made by Founders' Club members will be paid back in full with a 9% annual interest by October 2014.
The total project cost is estimated to be $1.3m, and WSCEC is confident that they can raise the full amount through a share offering, without going to the bank for a loan: ''This is a low risk and very viable investment. It also has great educational and environmental benefits in the short and the longer term. There is no reason why we cannot raise the full amount from within the community'', said Harry French.
Thomas Schmidt added: ''As a community-based project, we are aiming for the economic benefits of our project to stay within the community as much as possible. We are planning to contract local people, and also believe that we can raise the entire amount from the community''.
A participant from the crowd could not hold her excitement back and raised her voice full of confidence: ''Sure we can!''
WSCEC is aiming high. They want to show other communities that this is an economically viable, environmentally beneficial and socially empowering model. Harry French explains the co-operative's overall mission very briefly and clearly: ''What we can change is our behaviours from now, so that our actions can become catalysts''. One thing is sure, they really want to prove Margaret Meade right.
Last Updated: Friday, June 01, 2012 at 12:50:24 PM
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