By Collin Gallant on December 15, 2018.
Work on large scale solar power farms throughout southeast Alberta could move ahead en masse in 2019, according to industry observers and companies behind the projects.
This week Aura Renewables advanced its application for the Empress Solar Park — a 39-megawatt facility covering about two quarter-sections — to provincial regulators, and furthered process on its even larger 65-megawatt Big Bend Solar field near Vauxhall.
The combined output would be twice that of the City of Medicine Hat’s recently commissioned Unit No. 16 power plant and are but two of dozens of proposals to build utility-scale solar farms in deep southern Alberta.
For years such proposals have sat on the shelf while developers worked on the financing, long-term contracts or the general business cases.
Now however, reduced capital costs and rising power prices have many considering final go ahead decisions, perhaps even ready to forego stable prices to feed the grid on a merchant basis.
“The main factor is that cost in panels has come down significantly over the past few years,” said Victor Beda, of Aura. “They keep getting cheaper and cheaper.
“Alberta’s had some of the lowest power prices in North America, and when you couple (panel costs) with some slightly higher power prices due to coal generation coming off market, something has to make up that capacity.”
Aura’s projects in the region are still in public consultation processes — no final decision has been made — but it is “the front runner,” said Beda, among nine Alberta projects under consideration by the partnership of two German and U.K. firms.
Many in the southeast were introduced to a major solar field when Elemental Energy commissioned the Brooks Solar One facility in 2017, which is visible from the Trans-Canada Highway. Billed as the first utility scale solar project in Western Canada, it is now the subject of expansion plans that would see it triple in size.
Another global firm, Solar Krafte, states it is in late development stages for most of its eight planned projects south of Calgary, including a three-phase farm in the Municipal District of Taber.
Known as Prairie Sunlight, the three locations would comprise 900 acres of private and irrigation district land, produce 120 megawatts at full capacity and cost $187 million to build.
Combined with other projects in Stirling, Warner, Brooks and Cardston, the total capital cost of the portfolio would approach $300 million, and produce 240 megawatts — enough to power 75,000 homes.
Those companies did not return calls seeking comment.
Lower capital costs translate to a shorter payback period and a stronger business case for developers and makes financing more accessible.
The private sector is also being encouraged with provincial programs, including a green energy procurement mandate for Alberta Infrastructure in power purchasing, and price stabilization programs.
In early 2019, the province will reveal final details of a $200-million Community Generation program that will support price contracts for mid-sized utility projects. Administrators say that could especially benefit solar sector development.
“Albertans want to be leaders in renewable energy and community generation will ensure local participation and benefits,” Environment Minister Shannon Phillips stated on Nov. 22, when the Community Generation program was announced. “This program opens doors to exciting new small-scale projects while supporting communities as they seek sustainable ways to meet their energy needs.”
Utility companies that claim local partnership with municipalities or non-profit groups, such as ag societies or grazing co-ops, could see that price guaranteed with dollars from the province’s heavy carbon emitters fund. When prices rising above, companies pay the difference back to the fund, similar to the system that saw large scale wind projects, like Capital Power’s Whitla Wind Facility awarded contracts in late 2017.
Beda states that Aura could make a final decision on its local proposals with or without such support, depending on the financial case, but is keen on talking with community groups interested in partnerships.
“The trend has been to go with renewables with (natural) gas-fired generation as a backup,” he said. “That’s going to be the trend for the next 30 years.”
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