OrcaLab’s fabulous solar upgrade

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Thanks to fantastic donations of solar panels and hardware from Canadian Solar Industries (CSI); a new 48V inverter and control electronics donated by Paul McKay of TrueGridPower Inc.; meticulous design, planning and project implementation by Steve Lapp of St. Lawrence College’s Energy Systems Engineering programme; and the tireless efforts of Steve and Paul along with those of Ronnie Giberson, Mark McCallum and Bec McGuire,  OrcaLab has a new look and vastly improved solar energy capacity.  Almost unbelievably, after 2 intense weeks of work, we are now virtually free from the need to run a generator for hours every day to keep our systems running.  Life has changed at OrcaLab, and for the better!

The panels and equipment were shipped from Guelph Ontario to Port McNeill B.C., where we had them loaded onto our trusty work horse  vessel June Cove.  It was a huge load for our boat, a bit scary.


We added extra fuel and made our way carefully over to Alert Bay, watching the engine temperature closely because it was climbing slowly. Offloading the extra fuel lightened the load a bit, and the hour it took helped the engine cool down.  We set off for Hanson Island in a breezy sea, again carefully and still watching engine temperature, and arrived just at the point the engine heat alarm went off. It was a dramatic moment, but we’d made it, phew!  After a break, moving very slowly & carefully over slippery rocks, Helena and I were able to get half of the panels off in pouring rain before night fell.  Next morning was drier, and we completed the job.  By noon, all 14 of the big 275 watt panels were safely ashore.  The count of 14 was actually a lovely surprise, because we had expected 12 panels.  More thanks to Canadian Solar Industries!  Naturally, as soon as we knew we had extra panels, we started imagining how to use them.

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Steve, Paul & Ronnie flew into Comox from Toronto on April 9th.  They were picked up by Mark and driven north to Port McNeill, and thence to Alert Bay via water taxi (the ferry was down).  The plan had been for them to go directly from Telegraph Cove to Hanson Island, but the weather was too bad for a safe crossing of Johnstone Strait.  As things turned out, everyone was glad to spend the night relaxing at our cosy house in Alert Bay, after a long day’s journey.  By next morning the weather had calmed down, and we were able to pick the crew up and take them to Hanson Island.

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Next day, the work began in earnest.  The first job was changing our existing 12V system to a better and more efficient 48V system.  Paul McKay had generously donated a 48V Magnum inverter, to replace our old 12V Trace inverter which had performed well for decades.  The change included building a new battery platform that was far enough away from the house to make it safe from the threat of fire.  We moved all 8 of our existing 6V batteries onto it, connecting them in series to make a 48V system, then installed the new 48V Magnum inverter and a new MidNite controller, also donated by Paul McKay. Ronnie replaced the malfunctioning screen on the existing OutBack controller.  After these jobs, the new power and control systems were now complete.

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Meanwhile, Mark was hard at work drilling holes for bolts in aluminium framing material we had purchased, and assembling the frames donated by Canadian Solar Industries.

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The whole crew was involved in taking down the old solar panels on the Lab, which have been a huge help to our energy needs for decades.

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The Lab took on a bare look, but it didn’t last long, as the preassembled racking was soon mounted in place on the high south wall of the Lab and along the walkway railing.

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Then came the very tricky job of installing the solar panels.  Despite jokes about having spares, this was a very delicate process.  Mark & Ronnie hoisted the first panel from the top of the Lab while Paul & Steve supported it from below.  Then Steve climbed a ladder, secured by a safety harness, and fiddled with the panel until he could slide a bolt in to secure it.  A collective sigh of relief went around.   Steve then used an improvised square to make sure the panel was properly aligned.  Another bolt went in and the first panel was securely in place!

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It’s tempting to say the job went easily after that, but there were many breath holding moments as the panels of the upper array went up one by one.




Once the panels of the upper array were in place, things went much more easily and quickly.  Great care was still needed in handling the panels, and installing them securely.  Once the first panel in the lower array had been leveled properly, the rest followed naturally.  The framing provided by CSI enabled the installation to happen amazingly efficiently, and the smooth work of the crew accomplished the last phase of the job in a single afternoon.  Given the nature of the site, perched on a rock and facing violent southeast winter storms, it was very reassuring to hear that the panel mountings would ensure they remain secure in hurricane force winds!

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Almost like saying ‘hey presto’ the job was done and solar energy was charging our batteries at a rate we’d never known without running a generator! Fuel consumption for the OrcaLab generator had been running about 1200 litres/year, so the increased solar power avoids greenhouse gas emissions of almost 3 tonnes per year!

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What a marvelous feeling, just like springtime!

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The next day, the crew went on a tour that took them to Cracroft Point (CP) the next solar upgrade site, and then to Critical Point in Robson Bight and the Main rubbing beach, where further solar installations were discussed, and a plan formed that would provide power to remote camera installations.


Then it was time to tackle the CP job.  Fortunately, the weather cooperated and we had a series of sunny days with a calm ocean that enabled us to prepare the panels and hardware, and then transport everything to CP in the June Cove.  The fine weather continued until the job was done!

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The first task was to install heavy beams on the shelter roof that were anchored to the base with galvanized steel cables and served as foundations for the panels.


Four old 55W panels previously mounted on a swivel rack were replaced with two new 275W panels mounted on new racking hardware, both donated by CSI.


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An assortment of panels from the old Lab installation, which included panels donated by Steve Lapp last year and panels previously donated by Kyocera, along with others we had purchased over the years, provided an additional 700 watts of solar capacity on the roof of the shelter.

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Altogether, CP now had 1,200 watts of solar energy charging the battery bank that provides power to its radios, computers, cameras and lights.

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A new OutBack controller was installed to monitor and regulate the solar input.  The entire CP installation was now virtually maintenance free.  Adding to the sense of security was an ethernet connected web monitoring kit kindly donated last year by Magnum Energy.  The device enables us to monitor CP battery voltage via the Internet, making it unnecessary to make boat trips to CP to check battery condition.

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At the end of an intense 4 days effort, as a sign of our confidence in the new CP solar setup, we took the generator away!

Job completed at both Lab and CP, we celebrated!

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HUGE thanks to Canadian Solar Industries, Steve Lapp, Paul McKay, Ronnie Giberson, Mark McCallum, Bec McGuire, and the ever cheerful Jedi!


Postscript June 2nd: It is now 7 weeks since OrcaLab’s solar upgrade.  We have run the generator for just 2 hours in all that time.  Even that probably wasn’t necessary, just a precaution as we were going away soon after the job was finished, and wanted to be sure.





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