“We could each be doing other things and making more money,” says Kuan Jian Foo of Viridian Energy Co-op. “But who can say they love what they do while making the world a better place?”
Viridian started in the Cowichan Valley five years ago and has since grown to span Vancouver Island. The worker co-op installs solar voltaic 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 Cowican Station, settled here, and started working for a solar company up Island. But he didn’t like the way he was being treated, so he and a fellow employee decided to start a worker co-op where the members own and run the company together.
They recruited long time local electrician Don Skerik who had just sold his business and Eric Smiley, a renewable energy engineer who was their teacher at a VIU course. The model, particularly in the lean early years, was that co-op members do jobs with Viridian, but also elsewhere as needed.
Viridian’s first job was installing solar hot water at a new cob house in Shawnigan. Word of mouth led to more work, but things didn’t scale up until 2014 when opportunity struck. A solar job fell through in Ontario and the supplier had a truck full of panels going cheap, and going quickly. Viridian was offered a chance to buy them, but was then too small to go it alone.
Local climate advocate Peter Nix pulled together a meeting of about 40 people and asked people to make deposits right then. Enough did, and Viridian was able to buy over 700 panels for about 20 customers. “The whole thing was a real rush,” says Skerik.
As Viridian has matured, it has taken on bigger institutional jobs. It did a solar install for Camp Fircom on Gambier Island, a 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 centre.
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 food share group 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. 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.
As seen in the Cowichan Valley Voice