Harnessing the power of sunlight to combat poverty, homelessness

In a collaborative effort to empower vulnerable people as part of Edmonton’s just and equitable transition to a green economy, Bissell Centre and Newo Global Energy completed a 25-kilowatt photovoltaic solar system on the roof of the Centre’s west building in March 2020. 

Grants from Eco-City Edmonton and Energy Efficiency Alberta respectively allowed Newo and Bissell Centre to install the system and to train and hire workers from Bissell’s casual labour program to assist on the project.

“Eliminating poverty requires community participation – individuals, business, not-for-profit, government,” said Louise Traynor, interim COO of Bissell Centre. “The partnerships that made this project happen are an example of what can happen when we work across sectors to create opportunities.” 

Bissell Centre is a social value agency that has been operating in Edmonton’s inner city since 1910. Bissell Centre helps people who are homeless find homes, provides emergency food and clothing, supports families by offering free childcare and family support services, enables employment and life skills training and empowers people to lead prosperous lives. bissellcentre.org

The system consists of 78 solar modules and is expected to generate 30,000 kWh of electrical energy per year, an estimated 18 per cent of Bissell Centre’s annual use. Savings on energy costs will be put directly into services that help people living in poverty or experiencing homelessness, and the system will prevent 22.6 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions from being released each year. 

The project is divided into two separate arrays: a permanent system (23 kW) and a smaller working array (two kW) that can be assembled and disassembled for training purposes — the first and only one of its kind in Alberta. 

“This is the kind of ecosystem thinking that is needed to address both global and local challenges,” said Rajan Rathnavalu, founder and CEO of Newo Global Energy. “We have in this one project lasting benefits that will not only affect local carbon emissions, but also hopefully provide an employment pathway for some of Edmonton’s most vulnerable citizens.” 

Twenty-eight Bissell Centre participants have gone through three week-long classroom training sessions; the third cohort was the first to work with the training array.

A dozen solar trainees install the training array on the Bissell Centre roof March 12, 2020. Local media came out to cover the good-news event.

“I am so impressed with Bissell and Newo for offering us guys this training,” said training participant Vincent Markiewicz. “Joe Blow living on the street would never have access to this kind of training, or even know it exists.”