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Susan Birley

A tall, light moss green house with green-blue trim stands on a tree-lined street in Regina’s Cathedral neighbourhood. From the outside, it’s a home of character, like others in the neighbourhood. Inside -- it’s more.

Sixteen years ago, this home was built with sustainability in mind. The foundation and frame was built with recycled materials from a torn down church, and the building was completed with all natural materials without toxins.

The windows on the south side of the home collect energy from the sun to warm the ceramic floors in the winter, but keep the inside of the home shaded from the high sun’s rays in warm Saskatchewan summers.

Creating a solar energy co-operative in Regina is the next thing on the to-do list for owner Susan Birley.

She says she is ready for the next step in sustainability. She considered installing solar panels when building the home in the early 2000s, but back then, it was too expensive.

“This is the time,” said Birley, sitting at her kitchen table, sipping a glass of water.

The cost of renewable electricity has fallen over the past decade, and will continue to fall.

She ran for city council in Ward 3 in 2012, but she came in second place. Now, she sees creating a solar co-operative as another way to be a leader in her community.

She plans to host a community meeting at the Cathedral Neighbourhood Centre on February 21 to gauge public interest in creating a solar co-operative.

Birley says that southern Saskatchewan is in a sweet spot for solar energy potential; yet, not much progress has been made in terms of making use of these sources.

Birley comes by her interest in the environment honestly.

She was raised by an organic farmer in northern B.C., so she was raised with a mindset of sustainability and stewardship.

Sitting in the warm kitchen of her two storey home on a winter night, her light hair falls naturally just below her shoulders, which are covered in a cozy knit sweater.

She came of age in the ‘70s. “It was the Age of Aquarius,” she says, laughing.

“It was a really optimistic time, I think, because everybody felt that they could come up with the ideas to make a difference,” she added.

Her sense of social and environmental consciousness began to develop further during this time, and she turned her attention to alternative sources of energy.

“Gas prices were really high, so everybody was really excited about wind and solar, and all these alternative sources of energy,” said Birley.

However, she says public interest in renewable energy began to wane once gas prices came back down.

While enthusiam faded for others with the passage of time, Birley’s interest in renewable energy lingered.

“I always think about … what the environmental cost of it is. Even running water, I try to think about not just pouring water down the sink.”

Birley is utilizing many resources to help her bring her dream of a solar energy co-operative to Regina.

The Saskatchewan Environmental Society (SES) organized Saskatchewan’s first solar co-operative in Saskatoon in June 2016.

“One idea from the start for us was to create a framework that others in Saskatchewan can follow,” said Michael Nemeth, a board member on the SES Solar Co-operative.

SES Solar Co-operative has developed a legal structure, set of bylaws, and a business model that other solar co-operatives in Saskatchewan can use as a model.

Nemeth said that following and modifying this framework as needed can help future renewable power co-operatives begin with more ease. That way, more renewable co-operatives can be established across the province.

Stephen Hall established a solar power generator for his home and studio in Regina. He sees the future of Saskatchewan’s electricity generation as being co-operative -- but bigger.

Hall invested $28,000 to install his own solar energy generation infrastructure, and SaskPower gave him a $5,000 rebate.

He says for $5,000, SaskPower gets a system that generates power that taxpayers aren’t paying for. Over time, he saves money on his monthly energy bill as costs for typical electricity continue to rise.

“Including capital cost repayment, it’s actually cheaper to do this than to continue buying power from the grid,” he said.

“We need to contemplate doing it at a massive scale,” said Hall, pointing to other areas in the world that generate electricity in a co-operative way.

Germany, for example, has almost 1,000 energy co-operatives around the country.

He says by individuals creating power infrastructure themselves and supplying that power to a grid, it creates a vast, connected energy system that saves everyone money in the long-term. Because solar energy is free, it does not cost any more money for additional energy over time.

“It’s an economically sensible thing to do for individuals; it’s an economically sensible thing for us to do as a jurisdiction,” said Hall.

Birley says she has faith that people will creatively explore the possibilities for future sustainability. She predicts in the next five to 10 years, this will be the “automatic” way of generating energy.

“You just need to give [people] a few ideas, and then they’ll just start to come up with their own solutions.”