“We all came from financially stable careers,” says Kuan Jian Foo of Viridian Energy Co-op. “But who can say they love what they do while working to make the world a better place?”
Viridian started in the Cowichan Valley five years ago and has since grown to span Vancouver Island and beyond. The worker co-op installs solar photovoltaic and solar hot water systems and provides design expertise on renewable energy and energy efficiency.
As a kid, Kuan moved around the world a lot because his father worked in oil and gas. He met his partner who grew up in Cowichan Station, settled here, and studied green building and renewable energy at Vancouver Island University. After gaining several years of experience working in renewable energy, he decided to start a new venture with a classmate, Wes Hyde.
They recruited longtime local electrician Don Skerik who had just sold his business. 2012 was the United Nations International Year of the Co-Op and after researching the worker’s co-operative model, they decided it was the best structure to match the goals of the business.
One of Viridian’s first job was installing solar hot water at a new natural home in Shawnigan. Word of mouth led to more work, but things didn’t scale up until 2014 when opportunity struck. Eric Smiley, a renewable energy engineer, who was their teacher at a VIU, had just joined the coop and brought a lead from a supplier in Ontario. A solar job out east had fallen through and the supplier had a truck full of panels going cheap, and going quickly. Viridian was offered a chance to buy them.
Working with local climate advocate Peter Nix, they pulled together a meeting of about 40 people and things just took off. Viridian was able to buy over 700 panels for about 30 customers. “The whole thing was a real rush,” says Skerik.
Since 2014, the coop has sold over 3000 solar panels, gaining significant experience. They have also added three new co-op members along the way. The Co-op has completed a major off-grid solar installation for Camp Fircom on Gambier Island, a net-zero solar project for Golden Tree Farm on Saltspring, a job for Peninsula Co-op (at the gas station at the corner of Island Highway and Bench), and recently an installation for the CVRD at Bings Creek recycling center.
As a worker co-op, each member is their own boss, and things are run by consensus. This means lots of meetings and communication. Viridian also has an ethic of giving back, and has donated solar systems to a Sunriver Community Garden in Sooke, and is in the process of helping Cowichan Green Community with a solar project.
Kuan believes we’re approaching a tipping point for solar electricity in BC. As the cost of panels comes down and the cost of BC Hydro goes up, the economics gets better. So far, it’s been early adopters with an environmental ethic who have made the significant upfront investment, but even now systems are getting a 4-6% return, which is more than you get with a GIC.
Written By: Matt Price