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Anne and Rudy Dyck (right) and their three youngest children standing on the top of their roof

When he was only eight months old, Callum Dyck caught pneumonia. As a young child growing up in Abbotsford, British Columbia, he was in and out of the hospital, prescribed a regular supply of steroids, and drawing relief from an inhaler almost daily. Callum’s lungs were vulnerable, ready to be inflamed at any moment, and Anne and Rudy Dyck had accepted that their youngest child’s uncomfortable condition was something they would have to manage for the rest of his life.

This was before they started visiting relatives in 100 Mile House, a small town situated within the unceded Secwépemc territory in the Cariboo region of central B.C. that in the mid 19th century, offered respite to weary gold rush travellers. It was during these family vacations up north that Callum’s asthmatic symptoms seemed to vanish entirely. 

“It was almost immediate,” Rudy Dyck remembers. It was this realization that prompted the Dycks to put a for sale sign up on the front lawn of their Abbotsford home in 2014.

“We kind of made the decision,” says Rudy. “Either we could move up here, get him off the drugs, and get him breathing properly, or we could stay down there for work, and we thought that wasn’t a very fair decision to make.”

Callum was only six years old at this time. That he would be able to live somewhere where he could breathe properly and have a normal childhood was something the Dycks hadn’t thought possible. So in June 2014, Rudy and Anne sold their Lower Mainland home and landed 500 kilometres north in Williams Lake with their four youngest children in tow.

Williams Lake is a natural resource and transportation industry hub, bordered by cattle ranches and forests burned in the frightening wildfires of 2017. It is known for its annual stampede that attracts over 10,000 spectators and participants, is featured in the popular reality TV series Timber Kings, and local paraplegic Rick Hansen put Williams Lakes on the map when he embarked on his Man in Motion World Tour in the 1980s. Amidst a sea of lifted pick-up trucks and large Canadian flags worthy of saluting our Canadian parliament buildings, something novel is happening here. 

Rudy Dyck is a Red Seal certified journeyman electrician by trade. He used to take jobs all over the province, travelling where the work was. When he and Anne started to have more children, he decided to start his own business so he could have more flexibility with his schedule and ultimately be around more. 

“Being a tradesman, I knew there was probably work up here,” Rudy recalls. It wasn’t until after living in Williams Lake for a few years that Rudy saw the potential to set himself apart from other electricians in the area. Sourcing and installing solar panel systems for local homeowners and businesses was going to be his craft. But first he had to walk the talk. 

A two kilometer long gravel driveway leads up to the 15 acre property that Rudy and his family live on today. A panorama of forested Crown land buffers them from their neighbours and there is a tomato-coloured barn on the edge of their cleared land. Cows, horses, and goats graze behind wooden and wire fences and they often erupt in chorus, cued by the flute-like gurgle of a Western Meadowlark. There is a hot tub perched thoughtfully near the house, and one imagines soaking in it, gazing up at a night sky unobstructed by the apricot glare or insect-like humming of street lights nearby. Perhaps the most eye-catching feature of all is the reflective roof of the Dyck’s single-storey home, a product of the 40 solar panels Rudy has himself installed and hooked into the provincial electrical grid system. 

“Our hydro bills were phenomenal!” Rudy remembers. Even though they were offsetting their electricity use with heat from their wood stove in the frigid winter months, the Dycks were spending over $500 a month just to keep their home from freezing. 

With average winter temperatures hovering around minus eight degrees Celsius and an average of 2,082 hours of sunlight each year, Williams Lake is the perfect place to generate electricity using solar technology. And with his own functioning solar system hooked up to the grid, Rudy could confidently endorse it and encourage locals to consider solar a viable source of energy that would save them money in the long term and make them more self-reliant.

Net metering allows owners to put energy into the grid

“It works really well with an independent power producer like us.” Rudy is referring to BC Hydro’s net metering program, an initiative that allows residential and commercial customers to connect a small scale renewable energy unit to its commercial infrastructure. 

“We can make it [electrical power], with their help [BC Hydro] we can store it, and our neighbours use it during the day,” Rudy explains. “You can produce up to 100 kilowatts on your property, which is more than enough power to be net zero. They monitor what we generate, tell us how much power we made, and they pay us 9.9 cents a kilowatt on anything we overproduce by the end of the year.”

The Dycks care about their carbon footprint, but as a family with animals and a large property to maintain, Anne admits that they are heavy users.

“We’re home all the time,” says Anne. “I homeschool. Every kid is on a MacBook. We’ve got animals, automatic heaters, a pump house, and a hot tub that sits over 100 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.” 

Their solar system has eased Anne’s concern around her family’s energy use. Aside from the monthly fee that all BC Hydro customers pay for their smart meter, the Dycks have not had to pay for energy since 2018. In addition, each year they have the option of receiving a cash payment or credit for the extra power they have fed into the grid system and that BC Hydro has sold to its customers. 

“It’s a service they offer, and they don’t charge for it,” Anne points out. “This program is for people like us who are trying to eliminate or reduce our own costs. You can generate your own power to run your own home.”

Martin Kruus went all in, adding solar panels to his house after buying an electric car.

With the cost of living rising every day, households across BC are paying attention to their energy use. Saving money and energy is something that has been on Martin Kruus’ mind for years. Seventeen years ago Martin and his wife made a shortlist of the places they wanted to live. Williams Lake came out on top, and its open skies, dry climate, interesting geography, and employment opportunities sealed the deal. Since moving here, Martin has made an effort to explore the region with his family. They regularly get out hiking, canoeing, camping and skiing. He also teaches outdoor education to grade seven students at Lake City Secondary. Martin feels privileged to have a life that is immersed in the outdoors and wants to share these experiences and an appreciation for the environment with his students and children.

“I feel that I have had a chance to see the world and its natural features, both in Canada and on other continents. It is marvellous, unique, and special,” Martin reflects.

“Keeping it intact, at least to some extent, so that future generations can also treasure it, and thereby become stewards, seems like the right thing to do. I try to do the right thing, as many other humans do when they can see clearly.”

Until this past spring, getting solar panels on his property was something Martin Kruus had thought about but never pursued seriously. This March, two events triggered an investment in a solar system for his home. The first was that a brand new, fully electric Hyundai Ioniq became the newest member of the family. Second, with the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic, Martin’s two week long cycling trip to Arizona got cancelled and refunded. He suddenly found himself stuck at home with a chunk of extra cash and a window of time he had not planned for. Martin could not stop thinking about the possibility of charging his new electric vehicle with his own personal energy source. The timing was serendipitous. 

“I remembered Rudy’s local ad in the paper so I contacted him,” Martin says. Rudy installed 14, 370 watt panels on Martin’s south side gabled roof. Meanwhile, with the help of an elaborate system involving ropes, pulleys, and chainsaws, Martin tackled the huge and rotten maple tree in his front yard that was shading his property and interfering with his panels and their full potential. Martin knew his roof had always been a perfect spot to install a solar system; finally having a fully electric vehicle is what made it happen.

Martin has now been driving his electric car for six months, and while COVID-19 has meant their family has travelled less than normal this year, between grocery shopping and family adventuring, they have still managed to put 6,000 km on the Hyundai. And the solar panels? They have been producing very well. With the system up and running for only a few weeks, the Kruus family was already ahead by 200 kilowatts by the beginning of May. 

“I guess I am now a prosumer,” Martin jokes. The term refers to someone who both produces and consumes energy, a new buzz word in the renewable energy world. 

Solar makes business sense, too

There are other homeowners in Williams Lake who have solar panels on their property, and businesses in the community are also getting in on the solar trend. In between its brick and peach coloured exterior, twelve solar panels rest on the south facing side of the Williams Lake and District Credit Union building. They have been operating since 2018 and like Anne and Rudy Dyck’s home, these panels are also tied into BC Hydro’s grid system. The credit union consumes everything it produces and with an electrical bill that averages $2,000 a month, the savings should pay off the installation costs in just a few years.

While he would not be surprised to hear of other businesses taking advantage of the sun’s energy and the province’s net metering program, CEO Jim Zimmerman is unaware of any other credit unions in B.C. doing what his branch office has done.

Jim Zimmerman, CEO of Williams Lake & District Credit Union

“I live in a beautiful part of the province,” Jim says. “We have a lot of sunshine up here. We just looked at what we could do to do our part for climate change, and this was a natural fit.”

After seeing the results from installing solar on his own house three years earlier, long time resident and local biking legend Marc Savard also had Rudy Dyck install a solar system on the south side of the evergreen tin roof that shelters Red Shreds. Marc has owned and managed his bike and board shop for 33 years. A typical July bill would cost $400, and in the winter, when temperatures reach as low as minus 35 degrees Celsius, electricity use is much higher. This year, when the summer statement from BC Hydro arrived in the mail, Marc knew he had made a wise business decision. On a single bolded line of his summer statement, he read ENERGY CHARGES………..$1.16. 

“Some people say it takes too long to pay it off. I don’t feel that way,” Marc says. “I’d rather spend a bunch of money and do something good, rather than be cheap and not. Ultimately you just feel good about it.” 

Marc took out a loan to finance the solar system but expects that in five years time it will be paid off. With a solar system that is expected to last at least 25 more years, that means by 2045, Marc could save $96,000 in electricity bills. This doesn’t take rising hydro costs into account or potential rebates or incentives that would encourage and reward those tying in their own renewable energy source to their provincial or municipal grid system. 

In British Columbia there are two primary utility companies: BC Hydro and Fortis. Both offer net metering programs that allow businesses and individuals to produce their own electricity and tie it into their commercial grid system. People living in communities that manage their own utility company independent of BC Hydro or Fortis also have an opportunity to produce their own power and remain on the grid.

Nelson, New Westminster, Grand Forks, Penticton and the District of Summerland all offer a net metering option to their customers. If you are interested in the program, your local utility provider must first approve your proposed system. And while each provider has their own criteria, the main qualifier for all programs is the same: applicants must demonstrate that the purpose of their renewable energy system is to reduce or eliminate their personal home or business electricity bills only. In other words, if your intention behind adding solar to your home is to make a profit, think again. 

While net metering programs are not intended for participants to generate electricity as an income source, larger scale renewable energy power stations are becoming more popular in B.C. Eighty kilometers west of Williams Lake, the Tŝilhqot’in Nation owns the Tŝilhqot’in Solar Farm, a one megawatt power plant. Access to efficient electricity in remote areas can be difficult, unreliable, and noisy diesel generators are left to pick up the slack. The Tŝilhqot’in Nation is bringing a renewable energy alternative to their community, employing local band members, and is more self-reliant than before.

Can solar power work everywhere?

The Cariboo region is a solar hot spot, a place where not harnessing the power of the sun would seem a waste at best. Beyond these sunny pastures, however, for those communities who see their fair share of cloudy days, torrential rain, or stop sign eating snowfalls, does solar make sense?

“Our lives are becoming increasingly electrified worldwide,” says Jim Jacobsen, a resident of Creston and a solar expert. “From the Kootenay point of view, yes, in the winter it gets dark early, we have very short days and inversions. But this has much less of an impact on solar systems than most people think.”

Jim points to a 2015 study from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology that studied the effects of snow coverage on solar systems. In Grand Prairie and Edmonton, sets of panels were arranged in pairs and positioned at six different angles. The result? Over the three year study, the panels with snow removed produced only 1-5% more energy than their snow covered counterparts. 

“Solar is highly misunderstood,” Jim suggests. “It is an appreciating asset that replaces a liability [your utility bill], pays for itself, earns you money, and on top of that, adds an estimated 3 to 4% value to your home.”

With the increasing severity of storms and the longer and more frequent power outages that are accompanying climate change, generating your own power also means being more self-reliant. When a consumer becomes a producer (also called a prosumer), they can rely on their own personal power plant and become more involved in the process.

“People that get solar on their roof become much more in tune with what they are consuming and more knowledgeable and aware about how they use energy,” Jim explains.

Most British Columbians are fortunate to have a surplus of readily available, affordable hydro-electricity delivered directly to their home. But a personal connection to the energy, where it comes from, and how you consume it, has been lost on many of us. In his 1949 book of essays called A Sand County Almanac, naturalist Aldo Leopold said, “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”

There may be no spiritual danger at play, but Rudy Dyck readily admits that he has become much more aware of his personal production and consumption. He believes that solar offers a real solution that an individual can add to help deal with the climate change crisis that faces us today and that can often overwhelm or paralyze us into inaction. 

“We are not trying to say you have to do things your way,” Rudy clarifies. “Being a good steward. Taking care of what you have. That’s kind of our goal. It doesn’t have to be something big.”