Western Canada’s largest solar farm earns its place in the sun

0 2889 Technology

by Jean Sorensen

When the switch is thrown in February, Western Canada's largest solar farm, consisting of 4,032 solar panels that can track the sun in an almost science-fiction fashion, will begin earning revenue for the City of Kimberley, B.C.
Western Canada’s largest solar farm earns its place in the sun

It will also mark several firsts in solar technology advancement in the province.

The solar farm, known as Sun Mine, is the brain child of Michel de Spot, president of the EcoSmart Foundation, a non-profit organization that looks to finding and supplying sustainable technology and solutions.

He had analyzed weather data from across Canada and found that the Kimberley area, with 300 days of sunlight, was an ideal site for a large scale solar farm.

The deal was sweetened when de Spot found this area had a decommissioned mine site of Teck Cominco (the Sullivan mine, one of the world's largest lead-zinc underground properties) and there was a BC Hydro substation near the property that could be used to transfer power into the grid.

"De Spot really brought the city and Teck together," said Scott Sommerville, Kimberley's chief administration officer.

In 2011, the city put the idea of a solar farm out to a $2 million referendum, which passed with 76 per cent of the town's 6,700 population in favour.

Teck contributed another $2 million, the B.C. government $1 million and the Columbia Basin Trust contributed $300,000.

Prime contractor Conergy Canada supplied the equipment to the site of the old mine's now demolished concentrator and SkyFire Energy served as construction manger.

Kimberley's economic development officer Kevin Wilson said Sun Mine now sits on five acres of a 16-acre site leased from Teck. It will produce 1.3 megawatts of power, which is enough to power 200 homes.

There exists the potential, with minor modifications, to increase the output as the substation can handle up to seven megawatts of power.

"The reclaimed area of the mine site is much larger and there is enough land to generate 200 megawatts of power, but that being said, if we did expand that would require a much larger substation and that is a big ticket item to rebuild," he said.

Wilson said Kimberley has negotiated what is the first long-term contract for a solar farm in B.C. with BC Hydro and yielding 11 cents per kilowatt hour over the 25-year life of the contract.

Although the pay-out from BC Hydro will vary according to the number of days of sunlight, Sommerville estimates that the annual yield will be $160,000 a year, which will service the $2 million loan and  a contingency fund for maintenance and expansion.

Over the first 25 years, they expect to see about $58,000 returned to city coffers annually.

SkyFire's Tim Schulhauser and the construction project manager said the project is expected to outperform similar installations in areas such as California and Florida.

Both colder temperatures and the reflection of the sun off the snow increase panel efficiency.

"There are many parts of the world that get more sun, but that doesn't translate into more solar energy," he said, adding that the semi-conductors in the panels actually become more efficient as the temperatures plunge.

Schulhauser said new technology allows the panels to output 1,000 volts compared to the 600 volts that is standard. It is also considered a new application for B.C.

"This is more in line with the way it is going in the U.S. and Europe," he said.

The other piece of innovation is the dual-axis sun tracking units, which are each the size of a small house.

Every one of the 96 trackers, with two solar-powered motors, controls 42 solar panels, aligning them with the movement of the sun as well as allowing the panels to tilt and drop snow when it reaches three inches or assume a table-top or flat position when a strong wind blows.

"Even when you factor in the two motors, this system provides 40 per cent more energy than a fixed system," he said.

De Spot said the application to the mine site is one that can be duplicated in other areas.

There are numerous benefits to installing large scale solar farms on old abandoned or current sites that have BC Hydro infrastructure in place.

They are often brown fields and not suitable for other development without rehabilitation.

For existing mines, it might serve as a means of supplementing their power requirements or contribute revenue to a company, even if the mine is closed.

Finally, it could serve as a means of returning benefit to a community by striking a deal such as what has occurred in Kimberley.

"You are really turning a liability into an asset," he said.

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