The Sun Is (Still) Shining on Solar in Canada
February 09, 2017
2017 is going to be a big year for solar. Ganesh Bell, chief digital officer for GE Power, recently predicted that more utility-scale wind and solar will reach grid parity, and, in many regions, these generation sources will offer lower-priced alternatives to traditional options. In the spirit of cheap renewables coming online, we checked in again with one of western Canada’s largest pioneering solar projects.
In B.C., the site of what once was Canada’s largest lead and zinc mine is now being used to mine sunshine.
SunMine, near Kimberley, began feeding energy into BC Hydro’s grid in June of 2015, making it one of B.C.’s first grid-connected solar photovoltaic (PV) installations and one of Western Canada’s largest solar projects.
Using just eight hectares of land, more than 4,000 solar PV modules generate roughly 1 megawatt (MW) of electricity, enough to power about 200 homes. “We like to say we’ve gone from a brownfield to a brightfield,” says Scott Sommerville, chief administrative officer for the City of Kimberley, which now owns the site.
The SunMine is built on land that was once Sullivan Mine, shuttered in 2001. Teck, the former mine owner, provided the land as well as $2-million of the $5.3-million cost.
In its previous life, the land was used as a “concentrator site” for the mine, where the ore was gathered and refined before being shipped out. With all that heavy industrial use, reclamation posed a challenge. But rather than let the land lie dormant, the SunMine makes the most of the site’s greatest asset: it gets a lot of sun.
“This is one of the solar hotspots in Canada,” says Sommervile. The site has one of the highest solar energy intensities in Canada, with 2,200 hours of annual sunshine—averaging six hours per day—guaranteeing reliable energy production.
All those sunny days are a clear asset, but the SunMine possesses another natural advantage: cold weather. ”Electronics like cold and don’t like heat,” explains Gordon Howell, a professional engineer and managing principal of Howell Mayhew Engineering in Edmonton.
When a working solar cell reaches 70 degrees Celsius, the 250-watt PV module will operate at 205 watts, an 18 per cent drop. At a cell temperature of 0 degrees, the 250-watt PV module will operate at 273 watts, nine per cent better.
In the two years since the SunMine project was installed, yet another advantage has emerged. “The maintenance costs are much lower than expected,” says Sommerville. “We thought we were going to have to clear snow from around the base, but the snow sloughs off in a wide circle, so it doesn’t interfere with the tracking.”
Although the SunMine has seen cloudier weather in the last two years compared to the historical norm, the project is earning revenue for the city. For now, that money is being set aside for replacement parts down the road, but Somerville says they’ve received about a dozen offers from companies looking to help expand the project, or purchase it outright.
There’s still plenty of room to grow. The SunMine has enough land to install up to 200MW worth of modules – enough to power 40,000 homes. Somerville hopes that outside investment in the project will help build up capacity locally to supply and install solar facilities.
But the City of Kimberley isn’t just taking calls about expansion; they’re also hearing from other municipalities in BC that want to create their own solar projects, in places with sunny names, like Summerland and Peachland. “We’re the pioneers, so they phone us first,” says Somerville. Clearly, the future is getting brighter for solar in Canada.