Kimberley, B.C., hopes to leverage solar power project into solar industry in East Kootenay region

Author: Mark Lowey


Publish Date: Sunday, November 6, 2016

The City of Kimberley in British Columbia plans to expand its award-winning SunMine solar power project at a reclaimed mining site, in hopes of establishing a solar industry with multiple projects in the sunny East Kootenay region.

The $5.4-million, 1.05-megawatt SunMine project is the first large-scale photovoltaic plant in western Canada, and the first such facility owned and operated by a municipality. Since being completed in 2015, the project has received six national or provincial awards.

In addition to the attention and marketing benefits for Kimberley, the SunMine project “has brought a number of other proponents to the table, who are looking at putting in solar farms” at different sites in the region, says Mayor Don McCormick (shown in photo; photo by David Dodge, Green Energy Futures).

“We probably have as many as a half a dozen interested parties in putting as much as 15 megawatts of solar farms in place in the region here,” he said in an interview with EnviroLine.

“It creates an opportunity for a solar industry to gain a foothold here,” attracting product and service companies that support a solar cluster, McCormick said. “That’s really the vision I see . . ..”

Professional engineer Michel de Spot, president and CEO of EcoSmart Foundation Inc., first approached then-mayor of Kimberley Jim Ogilvie and Teck Resources in 2008 about a partnership to build the solar facility on Teck’s reclaimed mining site. EcoSmart is a Vancouver-based, non-profit foundation promoting economically and ecologically smart projects between public and private sectors.

Ogilvie, who died in August 2014, “was really super supportive of this and he did a lot . . . to have it accepted by his community. That was really important and critical,” de Spot told EnviroLine.

B.C.’s Innovative Clean Energy Fund contributed $1 million through EcoSmart Foundation toward the project, and the Columbia Basin Trust donated $300,000. Additional funding and assistance came from the Southern Interior Development Initiative Trust. The City of Kimberley borrowed $2 million for the project, after holding a referendum in 2011 that won the support of 78 per cent of residents.

Teck was on side from the start, leasing five hectares of its reclaimed former Sullivan Mine site to the city and contributing $2 million to get the solar project built.

“Without the Teck support, this would have never happened,” McCormick noted. “I think they saw it as an opportunity . . . They had this brownfield sitting there with nothing happening to it, and an opportunity to prove that it wasn’t completely wasted land.”

Kimberley, a city of about 7,000 nestled in the Purcell Mountains in southeastern B.C., was founded in 1917 to serve Cominco’s (now Teck) Sullivan Mine, the world’s largest lead-zinc mine in the world for almost 100 years until it closed in 2001. With its closure, Kimberley lost 600 jobs and 1,600 residents.

McCormick said that former long-time mayor Jim Ogilvie was looking for ways to change people’s perceptions of Kimberley as a mining town and transition the city to a tourism economy. “When Michel [de Spot] brought up the SunMine, Jim grabbed onto that very quickly,” seeing the project as an opportunity to create a new, progressive brand for the community.

McCormick, who was a city councillor at the time the referendum approved the SunMine project, said he realized the marketing opportunity. “But I did not foresee the degree of interest that this has created.”

More than 1,100 people have toured the facility and over 175 media articles and blogs published since construction was announced. “It’s been absolutely amazing,” the Mayor said. “And it’s not just from visitors coming to town that have heard about it, but our own residents who want to get out and have a look at what it is they’ve built.”

The awards received by SunMine and its partners include:

  • Community of the Year Award by Clean Energy BC, 2015

  • Union of BC Municipalities, 2015 Community Excellence Award for Leadership and Innovation in Green Initiatives 

  • The 2016 Sustainability Award from the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of BC

  • The 2016 National Award for an Engineering Project or Achievement from Engineers Canada.

  • 2016 Collaboration Award in this year’s Community Energy Association Climate & Energy Action Awards

  • 2017 Clean 50 award for outstanding contributions to clean capitalism.


SunMine project achieves several ‘firsts’

De Spot (shown in photo ) said the SunMine project achieved several ‘firsts.” It is the first large-scale solar photovoltaic plant in western Canada, the first such project done at a former mining site, the first supported by a mining company, and the first project owned and operated by a municipality. It is also the first solar project that supplies power directly to BC Hydro’s electrical grid.

On the technical side, SunMine is at the highest altitude of any solar power plant in Canada. It is the first project at such a scale to use dual-tracking technology, which enables the solar panel modules to follow the sun and provides up to 40-per-cent more energy than a traditional fixed system.

The project also is the first at its scale to use smaller, off-the-shelf power inverters, which improves efficiency and are less expensive to maintain, de Spot said. In addition, the project operates at a relatively high 1,000 volts direct current, which decreased the amount and cost of copper cabling required.

Project consulting engineering de Spot and the EcoSmart Foundation were involved from start to finish, from creating and advancing the project, to approaching the city and Teck and developing their partnership, and obtaining some of the key funding. EcoSmart Foundation also did the original technical, feasibility and economic studies for the project, and led the competitive process that selected Conergy Canada as the prime contractor to provide SunMine’s engineering, procurement and construction management.

In May this year, de Spot received the 2016 National Award for an Engineering Project or Achievement from Engineers Canada at a ceremony in Charlottetown, P.E.I. “I’m very proud about my partners, Teck and Kimberley,” de Spot said in video shown at the ceremony. “They have been supportive of this from day one.”


Leveraging SunMine’s success

The SunMine facility has 4,032 solar cell modules, arrayed in clusters of 42 modules on each of 96 solar-tracking masts. The system is designed to produce about 2,000 megawatt-hours of power per year, which the City of Kimberley sells to BC Hydro under a 25-year agreement.

Since the project began commercial operation on June 22, 2015, operating and maintenance costs in the first year have been less than $30,000 – about 58 per cent of what was expected.

Snow accumulating on the solar panels hasn’t been a problem because the trackers can position the panels at almost vertical, which are at near-vertical in the winter anyway as they track the sun getting lower in the sky. A sophisticated monitoring system also alerts city electricians immediately if there’s a problem.

The 1,915 megawatt-hours of electricity, generated by SunMine from June 2015 to June 2016, earned $195,700 in revenue for the city and resulted in keeping 604 tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. After more than one year of operation, “we’ve proven that it’s viable,” McCormick said.

However, in its current one-megawatt incarnation, SunMine is considered a pilot project – a ‘seed’ to grow something much bigger.

“It needs to be expanded in order to fulfill its potential, and we are actively talking with partners right now who would take on that project to expand it from the one megawatt we’re at today to 15 megawatts,” McCormick said. The brownfield site is large enough to accommodate an estimated 200 megawatts.

A larger site would ensure that the city continues to earn revenue on its solar-generated power, as operating and maintenance costs – for things like replacement solar panels, inverters and other equipment – increase for the original, one-megawatt project.

Beyond the SunMine site, solar energy maps show that the East Kootenay region receives some of the highest number of sunshine hours in British Columbia and in the entire country.

McCormick said the city is having discussions with Teck about obtaining some additional land for an industrial park that would be located next to SunMine. He noted that a lot of big technology companies in the U.S., such as Apple, Google and Microsoft, are now using solar energy to power their data centres.

“Ideally, I would love to have an industry that requires this green energy located right beside the SunMine and have this big power cord that I could just plug right into it.”

In August this year, the Regional District of East Kootenay voted to approve a five-year investigating license for Quebec-based Innergex Solar Energy to “assess the environmental and socio-economic feasibility” of potentially building solar projects at five sites across the district. Innergex is looking at sites near the communities of Elko, Mayook and Skookumchuk.

Innergex said that it wants to investigate the southeast Kootenay region because of its “high solar irradiance, land availability, and proximity to interconnections with BC Hydro." If the company pursues solar development, the region could see the installation and construction of “solar panels, access roads, a switch yard, and a transmission line to the point of interconnection with the BC Hydro electricity grid.”


Potential for solar power in B.C. and Alberta

De Spot said there are three parameters that must be considered in looking at the solar power development potential of any location. They are: the amount of solar energy received; the type of energy utilities are willing to pay for and the price; and the capital cost of installing the system.

Although the cost of solar panels and associated hardware is declining, what he calls the “soft costs” of doing solar projects are still relatively high in Canada. These difficult-to-control soft costs range from software interconnections to consultations with partners and landowners – including First Nations in many cases.

Having supportive government policy, as in B.C. which makes it mandatory to develop renewables, is crucial to developing clean energy projects, de Spot said. Up to now, building solar projects has more difficult to do in Alberta, where the price of electricity is the provincial power pool price and wind and solar power providers are “price takers, not price makers,” he said.

Alberta currently has about 11 megawatts of solar power installed, mainly in the form of small installations on rooftops.

Proposed solar power projects are lining up in anticipation of incentives from the Alberta government. According to the Alberta Electric System Operator, 21 proposed solar projects generating a total of 681 MW – about 60 times the existing provincial solar capacity – have been registered on its system access service request list as of Sept. 1, according to a Canadian Press story.

However, to proceed with projects, solar developers are looking for either a change in the power pool’s spot price or some sort of additional incentives or revenue stream to make projects economically viable.

That could come in the form of government purchases of renewable energy credits from the projects on long-term contracts, or through “contract-for-differences” agreements that would top up developer revenues when prices fall, Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips has said.

As for de Spot, he is currently investigating the potential of solar energy with First Nations in B.C. Some traditional territories such as K’tunaxa, Shuswap, Okanagan, West Moberly and Tsilhqot’in are located in regions with exceptional solar resources.

De Spot, a LEED-accredited professional, has worked on numerous large industrial projects such as cement plants, coal-fired power plants, oil refineries, zinc smelters, municipal waste incinerators, in places such as Europe, Brazil, Angola, Iran, Algeria, Peru and Congo.

The SunMine project is “more about sustainability than technology. The technology is just a means,” he said. “I think we should make the transition to clean energy.”

Click here for the Green Energy Futures episode, by David Dodge and Duncan Kinney, on the SunMine project.

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