By Nikki Jamieson
Some serious solar investment may be coming into the M.D. of Taber.
In a series of solar projects in southern Alberta, Solar Krafte Utilities, in partnership with Belectric and Innogy, wants to build and operate three solar facilities within the M.D. of Taber, located north of Enchant, north of Vauxhall and south of Vauxhall.
The first project is the Prairie Sunlight I Solar Project, which is a 74.2 megawatt solar facility located on 552 acres of private land north of Enchant and southeast of Lomond, that is beside the Enchant Substation. By far the largest project they have planned for southern Alberta, the facility would cost at least $125 million to construct, and at peak construction period, is expected to create over 800 jobs.
The second project is the Prairie Sunlight II Solar Project, which is a 24.5 megawatt solar facility located on 180 acres of private land south of Vauxhall just off the Highway 36 and 875 intersection. The facility would cost about $40 million to build, and at peak construction period, is expected to create 300 jobs.
The final project planned for the M.D. is the Prairie Sunlight III Solar Project, which is a 22 megawatt project located on 154 acres of land owned by the Bow River Irrigation District, on the left side of Highway 36 north of Vauxhall. The facility would cost about $40 million to build, and at peak construction period, is expected to create 270 jobs.
The five other projects they have planned for southern Alberta are the Stirling Solar Project (17.4 megawatts near Stirling), Warner Solar Project (20 megawatts west of Warner), Wrentham Solar Project (45.9 megawatts west of the hamlet of Wrentham), Cassils Solar Project (22.5 megawatts west of Brooks) and Spring Coulee Solar Project (29.5 megawatts southwest of Spring Coulee).
The projects will mark Solar Krafte’s first foray into Canada. The company started in 2009, when Ontario had begun building up its subsidized solar program.
At that time, they instead went to the Mojave Desert in California, where they procured power purchase agreements with Southern California Edison, and sold electricity for nine cents/kilowatt hour, competing against natural gas.
“That was our corporate mandate, if you will. We started when we did because in 2008, there was a real drop in the cost of solar modules,” said Mark Burgert, president of Solar Krafte, adding the new technology caused the price to drop to half over the course of a few years.
“We knew that for the first time, there’ll be somewhere in North America where, in the highest solar resource part of North America, solar could compete at grid parity.”
With both Burgert and Solar Krafte CEO Jeff Thachuk having lived in Alberta when they were younger, they kept on eye on southern Alberta and Saskatchewan — the most solar-intense regions in Canada — and two-and-a-half years ago, decided that the numbers could work out.
“Our company policy has always been to go into markets where solar could substantily compete directly at grid parity without pricing subsidies. That’s what we do, so we don’t need a specific program.
Burgert says that they will require no subsidies once their facilities are operational, saying that with their business model, they’ll be able to create energy at the plants for the market rate, without the need for a subsidy.
“Solar is incredibly versatile. We can put it on rooftops, on boats, vehicles, whatever we want to do, but at the end of the day, that does not produce the lowest cost of electricity by any stretch of the imagination. So what we’ve focussed on is building systems on scale, and leaving no stone unturned to keep the price of the electricity we produce — which is the product we sell at the end of the day — as low as possible.”
Burgert says the reason electricity is so inexpensive in Alberta right now is due to too much generation of energy in the grid, as coal-energy plants are still operating — which account for producing roughly half of Alberta’s electricity — and natural gas plants coming on line in anticipation of the coal plants coming off line, something Burgert said has been in the works federally for the past seven years.
Acknowledging that the current Alberta government had sped up the timeline with the Climate Leadership Plan — part of which includes phasing out coal in favour of renewable energy contracts — he said the price of electricity will rise as coal plants come offline as 2020 approaches, putting prices back in line historically.
Right now, according to the AUC website, prices under the regulated rate option for electric rates range in July from 3.432-4.2128 cents/kilowatt hour. In November 2016, when the Alberta government first announced their cap on consumer power rates, the average electricity price was 3.8 cents/kilowatt hour. Bill 16: An Act to Cap Regulated Electricity Rates, caps Regulated Rate Option customers’ electricity prices at 6.8 cents/kilowatt hour for the electricity component of their bill, with government paying the rest should the amount be exceeded, from the period of June 1, 2017 to May 31, 2021. It does not cover distribution or transmission charges.
Historical, such as cases in Ontario, Germany and some parts of the U.S, solar plants were built to be small in size because it cost too much to subsidize them otherwise. However, Burgert says the scale of their projects is key to helping keep costs down.
“Nobody would build a five megawatt or three megawatt coal power plant, why would you build a solar power plant that is small like that when you fail to meet the scale that you need to bring cost effective pricing? We knew that scale was absolutely key in keeping the cost of the electricity that we produce, at the end of the day, as low as possible,” said Burgert, adding that when they first began looking at Alberta they had studied each substation.
“The idea of having, in this case, eight separate BTF (behind the fence) projects, is to build enough scale to get the lowest possible price for power.”
Although one criticism of solar energy is that it can only produce electricity while the sun is shining, Bergert pointed out that that is the time when we’re using the most energy.
Additionally, once the cost of building the systems are paid off, they’ll be able to become more competitive in the energy market, as they won’t be premised on commodity price fluctuations. While there will be on-going costs for maintenance and upkeep, just like with any other energy venture, once the system is paid off, solar energy will be the “low bidder” while other energy sources’ prices go up.
“Once a system is amortized or paid off, there is nothing that can come close to competing with a fully amortized solar power plant. These systems continue to operate indefinitely,” said Burgert. “Any form of conventional generation, if you look at the pricing projections for the next 10, 20, 30 years, the pricing in a continual upward trend is what’s projected by everyone. In the case of solar generation, we’ll be the low bidder.
“Once they’re amortized, it is an absolute legacy to have that daytime only generation. You can really produce power at a third of what we’re originally competing at grid prices.”
“With no fuel inputs, or commodity risks, or what is happening with respect to climate change or the policies that are being implemented at the federal level or the provincial level, of course, as well,” said Thachuk. “They’re extremely robust systems. Unlike a wind turbine, the mechanical moving parts are completely minimized with respect to our systems. The substructure is completely durable, it can last for 60 years.”
Between the eight solar facilities planned for Alberta, they will be producing 256 megawatts of capacity, with 120.7 megawatts being produced in the M.D.
Some of the features of the solar facilities include horizontal single axis solar trackers, or HSAT. Mounted on a pivoting arm, the panels follow the sun through the sky, tipping to up to 45 degree angles facing either east or west, allowing for more even output of energy throughout the day.
Additionally, around the panels, there is a 50-metre grazing buffer between the facility and the edge of the property. A cattle fence will be erected around the property, with a chain linked fence around where the panels are, allowing cattle to graze around the panels, free of charge. The buffer also allows for mechanical harvesting of the forage, oil and gas infrastructure access on neighbouring properties, allowing for a buffer between the panels and their neighbours and to provide room for a fire guard in the event they need to protect the facility from a fire.
Beekeepers in the area will also be glad to know that they can use the solar facility as a base to keep their hives in between moves, as the ground cover under the arrays will be flowering throughout all seasons, and has been devised by beekeepers and horticulturalists to optimize honey production. Burgert says that between the canola and alfalfa flowering seasons, it can be difficult to find a good home for the bee colonies, and the solar facilities can provide them room to “park” their colonies in between those seasons. There is about 12-and-half feet between each array, so there will be sufficient room for each colony. Again, this would be provided free of charge.
“We reached out, very early on to any potential neighbours, and we really got the pulse of the community, and we wanted to make sure we understood all the values that were at play in southern Alberta, before we started composing anything.”
Normal farming practices will be used to establish the ground cover. Grading is not required to construct solar facilities, and there will be very little ground disturbance, as they only need to drive steel piles into the ground, and not dig for footings. During the peek construction period, upwards of 800 jobs are expected to be created, and once the facilities are operational, a few dozen jobs will be created to run, clean and maintain the facilities across the systems.
Although they have three projects (Prairie Solar I, Wrentham and Spring Coulee projects) that are eligible to participate in the government’s Renewable Electricity Program, which seeks to add 5,000 megawatts of renewable energy capacity to the grid by 2030 and supported through subsidies, Bergert says they don’t require them to build.
“We are not waiting for any program, we are not participating in the REP, and we don’t need any subsidies, we don’t need the NRFP (Negotiated Request for Proposals, run by Alberta Infrastructure) to proceed with these projects,” said Bergert. “We’ll participate in the NRFP, and we do have systems that do meet that threshold. But we’ll be doing it in a way that we’ve been talking about all the time, which is to bid into it so competitively.”
Belectric has constructed over 280 utility-scale solar projects, and has worked with Solar Krafte on their California solar facilities. Last year, they were bought by RWE, Germany’s largest utility company. Innogy is the wire and renewable energy spin-off of RWE, and they are prepared to balance sheet finance all of the solar projects, so no borrowing is involved in financing. Innogy will also be the end-owner of the solar systems along with Solar Krafte.
“Innogy, it has a mandate to grow their renewable business, because 100 per cent of the generation, 100 per cent of the focus of the generation side of their business is renewables. And solar is a huge part of that,” said Thachuk. “Belectric, today, is the largest operator of solar power plants in Europe, and the third largest operator worldwide.”
Although they haven’t submitted applications yet to the M.D. subdivision and development authority or to the Alberta Utility Commission, they plan on presenting to the development authority this summer and submitting their application to the AUC by mid-November.
Should everything be approved, construction would begin in spring 2018, with a rolling build-out and a target in-service date of fall 2018.