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Episode 7: Chasing the sun's rays – a Q&A with solar-friendly communities

The solar winds of change seem to be sweeping through Alberta at a municipal level. On the seventh episode of the St. Albert Signal, we speak with three Alberta mayors whose communities are embracing this change.

Welcome to the seventh episode of the St. Albert Signal, a weekly community podcast about the St. Albert area. Listen to the seventh episode below:

From installing solar panels on municipal buildings, to financing solar farms through private partnerships, the communities we live in are working to become their own micro-generators of solar energy.

To learn more, the St. Albert Signal team brought together a mayoral panel on solar projects to find out how each municipality incorporated solar energy into their own communities. Joining the panel is St. Albert Mayor Cathy Heron, Bon Accord Mayor Greg Mosychuk and Innisfail Mayor Jim Romane. 

The panel discussion has been edited for length and clarity in print.

SIGNAL:  Thank you all for coming here and joining us to discuss a little bit about solar farms. To start off, can each of you describe what your community has done, or is in the process of doing, around solar farms and solar energy?

HERON: As a municipality, we've done our own solar installations on our own municipal buildings. In 2017, on top of our transit building, we installed approximately a 300-kilowatt array. That has been a huge success for us because it supplies approximately one-third of the building's electricity, and it also offsets the electricity used to charge our city's electric buses.  

In 2020, we installed about 287-kilowatts onto our Public Works facility, so that's supplying about 38 per cent of that building's needs. That also qualified for a (Municipal Climate Change Action Centre) grant. And then this year, our big rec centre called Servus Place, we're going to install approximately a one-megawatt solar unit on the roof. That's going to hopefully offset the building by about 20 per cent of its electrical consumption. For that one, we actually got a really nice grant from the Government of Alberta's municipal stimulus project, about a million dollars we're putting towards that solar array.

We've done a lot with our own our own buildings, trying to show some leadership in that space. But I think what you guys are all interested in is the proposed solar farms.

So I'm really actually quite here curious to hear about Greg and Jim's experience, because we're just new into this. We're studying the feasibility of a 15-megawatt solar farm on the city-owned lands that we call the Badger Lands. That land, we were storing snow and stuff and it was quite contaminated, so we felt it was a good use for the land.

That report is going to come back to council in about June. And so we're looking at initial conversations of spending about $30 million – $10 million a year over three years, which we would probably take on debt. We would sell the electricity to the grid and generate revenue for the city. 

MOSYCHUK:  Ours was decided to be a 648-kilowatt microgeneration, and that amount offsets our power consumption in our municipal buildings and our infrastructure. So basically, what it generates will zero out what we were paying for our town hall, which includes our fire hall and our library, our arena area, our wastewater lift stations, our water generating, our public works. By the end of the year, we should not be paying anything for our power for our buildings that we manage in town.

It's supposed to generate approximately 800 megawatt hours per year, and so far, we're generating 236.09 megawatt hours. Even today, it's kind of snowing here and cloudy and everything else, and we're still cranking at 63.37 kilowatts. Because we're still early, this came online for us just in August of last year, it appears to be generating like it's supposed to be. We're coming up now, of course, into the really heavy period of when we're going to get a lot of sunshine and a lot of hours in the day. So we're really going to be seeing over this next few months as to exactly what it ends up being.

Nice thing about the panels we have there, they're laid out six rows at 144 metres each row. And they're a bi-facial, so basically what happens is they can they take the sun directly on, and then they also are able to pick up anything that is actually bounced off of, like the snow. So in the wintertime, if there's light hitting the snow, it'll bounce back on the other side. And it'll pick up all that too. So it optimises what it can.

Very, very maintenance free. Even for snow removal, they generate enough heat in the wintertime that any snow on it gets heated up and slides off. So you don't have to go out there and brush them off. And actually, we're looking at getting a flock of sheep to do the maintenance underneath. So they'll be eating the grass and keeping it all down low.

ROMANE: A local investor, developer, manufacturer, proposed a solar farm with us. They came to the town and said, 'Have you got a piece of land you'd be interested in doing something with?' We did, we had a quarter section of land on the northwest corner of land of town that that was in our land bank. It was I think 115 acres that they were talking to lease from us, they wanted a 25 year lease at minimum just to make the investment worthwhile. And we came up with a pretty good agreement.

It was constructed and went online, I believe right around the first of 2020, so they've got a year and a half operation in now. It's by a parent company of Elemental Energy, but it's now under the name of Innisfail Solar Farm. The capacity is capable of 25 megawatts power generation per day. It's incredible, when you look at the numbers, it was a $25-million investment with a payback of about 12 years. So that looks pretty good on an investor's portfolio.

Apparently Innisfail is in a sunny spot of Alberta so they looked at it as a good investment and took their chances. And it's proven to be quite well, they've even got 400 sheep grazing underneath it through the summers. It's quite incredible. 

I think there's about 75 jobs, so it was good for that. They're very community-minded. Apparently, this 25 megawatts is capable of generating enough power for about 4,000 residents, which is about the size of Innisfail. It just goes into the grid. They've also set up a couple programs with the community, and they've got a Community Benefit Fund of $10,000 every year that charities and non-profits can apply for a portion of. They've also got a Fee Assistance Program for up to $200 per eligible resident for children to get in to minor hockey or  programs like that. 

SIGNAL: What do you think of more municipalities breaking into the solar industry?

HERON: For me, the number one is an opportunity to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions, and also to avoid some costs and hopefully make some money off of it. I would say most municipalities in Alberta, and maybe across Canada, are really prioritizing climate change mitigation as a strategy in their approach to running their business. So I think it's a natural fit for all municipalities to try to get into it.

But I think it also demonstrates some leadership to your constituents that shows that these projects are feasible, that it makes sense. And so hopefully, it opens the doors for wider adoption of these kind of technologies. I also think it's important to consider not just throwing a couple solar panels on the roof of a building or setting up a farm – you also have to look at your own energy efficiencies.

Nobody wants to put a big array on top of a really inefficient building, so you have to partner that with really good investigation on how you can improve your building operations, whether it's LED lighting or implementing high efficiency systems within the building to reduce the consumption as well as generate the electricity. 

MOSYCHUK: It's about environmental stewardship. Our system is supposed to remove 480 tonnes of greenhouse gases per year, so that's a great benefit for everybody. I find that it's really wonderful also, because it's very rare that we build something and have to put money into something and actually have that thing pay for itself, or generate revenues. So often, we are building things and you put money into it, and it starts to depreciate, and by the time you've paid it off, it's already gone. This is 25 to 30 years that these panels are good for. 

Ours is a $1.1-million project, half of it almost was from the MCCAC. And it's paying for itself, and it'll be done in less than 10 years at this point. And after that, we can expand on it. So it's something that is a positive, and I think it's a great thing for small communities, large communities, the bigger the project, the more it generates.

ROMANE: That's one of the points that the initial developer when he was proposing this project pointed out to me, that the cost of construction, or putting these solar panels together, it's kind of like the LED light bulbs. The first ones came out at 50 bucks apiece and now they're a buck-and-a-half. But solar panels, I think he said are down (to) about 10 per cent of what they initially were. If you proposed this package six or eight years ago, it would have been 10 times as much. That makes these things a heck of a lot more economical and worthwhile.

SIGNAL: Can each of you go through some ideas, or what we've used the energy generated for so far, just to get an idea of what uses could come into play?

HERON: The farm that we're considering, 100 per cent of that energy generated, will be sold, either to the power pool or possibly through a power purchase agreement to a contracted buyer. We're building this essentially to generate revenue to offset taxes. I think we're looking at it almost a full percentage tax reduction with this array at each phase, so we're talking three phases.  

The ones that we are currently have sitting on roofs, that energy's used directly on site so it's to offset our consumption of electricity from the grid. And at certain times of the day, at certain times of the year, we might generate more electricity than is needed at the time on site. So in those cases, the excess electricity is fed back to the grid, and we receive a credit on our power bill. 

MOSYCHUK: What is generated in the micro-generation goes back into the grid, and we get a credit that goes against our power bill. So we still have a power bill here during the winter months, the credits are starting to catch up. Hopefully what happens is, as time goes on, we will have a greater credit than we have anything paying. And then by the end of the year, it should balance out. It was basically a way of removing an expense, so that can lower what we have to collect from an account from a residence ... it's an expandable system too. 

ROMANE: We've already donated out $10,000 allotted this year to local operations, or non-profits and charities, and it's been very, very well received. I can't say enough about that part of it. I see some of the issues of power storage, still, it has to be overcome somehow for wind and solar power to be dependable in that regard ... that to me is the biggest hurdle to overcome, is some way of storing this power.

SIGNAL: What are some of the pitfalls to watch out for with solar energy? I know that there's some people who fear that embracing this type of green energy might take away from people currently working in the oil and gas industry.

HERON: I'll jump in. I think Albertans in general, have been asking for years to look at diversifying our economy and not to rely solely on oil and gas. So I also honestly very strongly believe that as we try to attract businesses and economic development into our communities, the international marketplace does not look friendly upon our oil and gas industry ... Investors are looking for stable government, which you can find in Alberta. They're looking for governments that focus their attention onto social issues, making sure that there's good quality of life and we take care of our vulnerable, that is actually a priority for these big businesses. And then of course, the environment is huge internationally. So if we don't exhibit a concern for our environment, and climate change, we will be left behind. 

MOSYCHUK: I agree with you. I think they can complement each other. There's lots of room for everybody in this. When it comes to what the pitfalls on this was, and Jim had touched on it, was the storage as opposed to putting it back into the grid. For us, it was very limited, we knew that we're just putting into the grid, we have no storage. When it gets larger, it's the agreements that you make with the various power companies of what you can put back in, and in a sense, you're becoming their competition. So you have to work that out. 

When it comes also to the panels, we are told that they're recyclable. And what's happening right now is there's not really anything set up to recycle them at this time, because they're still sort of new. So hopefully, that's an industry that maybe will develop here where they're going to figure out what they need to do to recycle these things. Because there's various components that are easy, like the glass, but then there's other pieces in there that are not so easy to do. So it will require a little bit of focus. I'm hoping over the next 25 to 30 years, it'll all be figured out. It's good that we're looking at it now. But we have time to figure out how we're going to deal with it.

HERON: Greg brought up something I thought about after the fact, (which) was the recycling of the panels. I also sit on the Alberta Recycling Management Authority, and we deal with recycling of tires, household hazardous waste, electronics and paint. Solar panels falls into the realm of electronics, and we don't have a processor right now that will deal with the solar panel. So we've just struck up a committee to make sure this is a priority. Because we believe in a world of without waste. So solar panels eliminates the waste of carbon, but at the end of life, the panels are made up of glass, aluminum, and plastic. All of those are very easily recyclable. We just have to find somebody to do it.

ROMANE: We're kidding ourselves to think that we don't need fossil fuel industry, I can see where the boom and bust thing has been hard on everybody ... but if solar and wind power help us to reduce carbon, I mean the oil industry is constantly working on those technologies too, but golly, we're going to need all the energy we can get. We have to stay focused, but somehow we've got to work together to get this balance of industries in Alberta.

Brittany Gervais

About the Author: Brittany Gervais

Brittany Gervais joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2020. She writes about city hall, business, general news and features.
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