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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.

Building your own Sun-In-A-Box

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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.

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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.”

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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.