“I’ve never been much of a follower,” says Barry McLean as he plugs a battery from his cordless mower into his solar-powered generator trailer to recharge. The boxy generator is fitted with two large solar panels on the roof and is hooked up to a hybrid GMC truck parked next to the carefully manicured lawns of a home in British Columbia’s capital, Victoria.
McLean is the founder and owner of Clean Air Landscaping, Canada’s original solar-powered landscaping company and the first carbon-neutral landscaper in British Columbia. McLean founded the company in 2010 when he returned to Victoria to be closer to his mother after she was diagnosed with cancer.
“I was looking for a new start and in the meantime, renovating the front yard outside our home and neighbors kept telling me I should be in the landscaping business,” he says. “I like working with my hands and being creative so I thought I could get into landscaping. It would be easy.” Almost too easy, thought McLean, noting in landscaping, many operators just throw their stuff in the back of a truck and their business is ready to go.
He says that as he considered what direction to take, he knew he wanted to do something nobody else was doing. Having grown up on a farm and worked in agriculture for a significant portion of his adult life, landscaping appealed to him. “I didn’t have much experience in the environmental industry but I did know that it makes sense to adapt and change along with the needs of the community,” he says.
He started to think about the noise and emissions from landscaping equipment such as mowers, trimmers and blowers. “Nobody was doing anything about it,” he recalls. McLean also points out that in a city with a high percentage of retirees like Victoria, the noise pollution from gas-powered equipment is also an issue.
It was then that McLean began looking for a way to combine his love for working outdoors and with his hands with his desire to do something innovative and environmentally responsible. The answer was to start up a low-emissions landscaping service.
But deciding what he wanted to do was just the beginning. The next challenge was figuring out how to do it. “At that time, there were a couple of companies in the US running electric mowers but nobody was going completely emissions-free,” he says. “I knew that the only way to be zero emission was to use renewable energy.” He points out that while the bulk of the electricity generated in BC is hydropower, the provincial utility still imports some of its power from neighbouring Alberta, which is fossil fuel-based.
This realization led him to the organization Home Energy Solutions in Victoria. Home Energy Solutions is dedicated to helping Canadians use solar energy in their homes and provides advice as well as equipment. With Home Energy Solutions’ help, he came up with the idea for building a portable generator fitted with solar panels that could also function as an equipment trailer for the business.
“I was able to work with a solar electrician who sets up systems in cottages and houses. This was his first portable solar energy system,” McLean explains. He says that together they built what is essentially a mini residential charging station that is off the main power grid. McLean was actively involved in both the design and construction phase and has since gone on to create a second-generation mobile charging station with higher wattage. He has also added more solar batteries, meaning he can charge more pieces of yard-care equipment in less time and store more DC energy ready to convert to AC current.
McLean’s commitment to environmental responsibility didn’t stop there. He is intensely aware of how quick others are to point their finger at apparent green-washing and wanted to ensure that his company was truly carbon neutral. He had reduced emissions from his equipment and business practices as much as possible but could not eliminate them entirely.
“I asked myself, ‘How environmentally responsible are my suppliers?” he says adding that in most cases in the landscaping industry they are doing very little.
This brought him to Pacific Carbon Trust.
Pacific Carbon Trust was established in 2008 as a Crown corporation to help the province in its goal of becoming carbon neutral and thereby fostering the growth of BC’s low carbon and clean technology economy. In declaring its intention to become carbon neutral, the provincial government ensured that there would be a reliable and significant demand for carbon offsets.
However, although Pacific Carbon Trust buys BC-based carbon offsets on the government’s behalf, that’s not where its true strength lies. It provides clean energy project developers with the support needed to bring new low-carbon projects into existence and then engages independent auditors to verify and validate that these projects do indeed result in a reduction of carbon emissions. Only then can the project owners sell emissions reductions equivalent to the tonnage of carbon dioxide avoided.
And it also gives someone like McLean the peace of mind knowing that they can invest in offsets to neutralize unavoidable emissions, while promoting the growth of sustainable business practices in their home province. “It only makes sense that my business model is carbon neutral,” says McLean, whose company bought six tonnes of offsets from Pacific Carbon Trust in 2011.
His commitment to sustainability was rewarded with a Capital Region District EcoStar Award and a District of Saanich Environmental Award. McLean remains modest about his carbon neutral achievements, which he intends to repeat in 2012. “I think it is just being responsible, especially in the kind of business that I’m in where very few efforts have been taken to protect our environment. We have to keep evolving.”
His own evolution may very well be into a franchise. McLean has had enquiries from other parts of BC as well as from Alberta and Ontario. He notes that while he is definitely interested and has spoken with a franchising advisor, he remains prudent. “Society still has to accept the practicality of what we’re doing. People are slow to change.” For McLean though, embracing change is a source of personal satisfaction and professional opportunities.
As McLean says, “You are either part of the solution or part of the problem.”