Alberta renewable revolution begins with launch of largest solar project in Western Canada

The Brooks project is the first of several renewable energy projects to be constructed in Alberta as the province shifts away from coal power plants.

$30-million solar array will power 3,000 homes in southeast Alberta

The solar field is situated directly adjacent to the Trans-Canada Highway. The property also has an oil pumpjack, sour gas well, natural gas pipelines, an agricultural irrigation ditch and an internet fibre optic cable. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

There usually isn't much to look at driving the Trans-Canada Highway through southeast Alberta, aside from the occasional bobbing pumpjack, the odd herd of cattle and the abundance of brown prairie grass.

That's one reason why a new solar project outside the city of Brooks is so jarring. Seeing the 30-hectare site filled with solar panels is not only a sharp contrast to the landscape, but also to the province and its massive oil and gas industry.

The Brooks project, which launched last week, is the first utility scale solar facility in Western Canada, far surpassing any other solar project currently operating. This is the first of several renewable energy projects to be constructed in Alberta as the province shifts away from coal power plants.

The 50,000 solar panels will collect enough sunlight to power 3,000 homes, according to Vancouver-based developer Elemental Energy. The Brooks solar project is more than five years in the making, although actual construction took seven months.  
The solar array covers 78 acres on the east side of the Trans-Canada Highway south of Brooks, Alta. (Elemental Energy)

There's a bit of an Alberta flair to the project. On the same land as the solar panels is an active oil pumpjack, a sour gas well, natural gas pipelines, an internet fibre optic cable and an agricultural irrigation ditch.

"This area is agriculture and oil and gas, but it's really just resources. [Solar] is just another resource," says Graeme Millen, with Elemental Energy. "With the shared uses on this property between oil and gas, fibre optic, agricultural irrigation — it's a fantastic showcase for diverse resource development on Alberta land."

"With the shared uses on this property between oil and gas, fibre optic, agricultural irrigation — it's a fantastic showcase for diverse resource development on Alberta land.- Graeme Millen, Elemental Energy

On this day, the solar panels are half covered in snow following a few days snowfall in southern Alberta. It's also the shortest days of the year around the winter solstice. The panels are still producing electricity, albeit far below their potential. 

"In the event it snows, you lose production, for sure. The good news is in this part of the world, in southeast Alberta, it doesn't snow that much compared to a lot of other jurisdictions," said Millen. "The snow is light so it blows off with the winds we have and because we get so many sunny days. Once the sun starts shining, the snow melts quite quickly." 
The site has many uses, according to Graeme Millen with Elemental Energy. 0:26

Billions for renewables

The project cost $30 million and developers received $15 million in grant funding from the former Progressive Conservative government through Emissions Reduction Alberta.

Alberta is set to embark on a renewable energy revolution. Some renewable energy already exists in the province, but the sector is about to grow substantially. This month, the provincial NDP government announced partnerships with three companies to develop four wind farms, worth $1 billion. The projects will open in 2019.

The solar array is located outside of the city of Brooks, situated between the Trans-Canada Highway and farmland. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Collectively, about $50 billion is expected to be invested in developing renewable energy in Alberta and Saskatchewan before 2030 as both provinces strive to reach targets for how much of the electric grid is powered by wind, solar and hydro. 

The Brooks solar array may be the largest in Western Canada right now, but much larger projects are already in the works in the same region because of the sunny climate and proximity to several large transmission lines.

"Right now this one is looking big, but pretty soon it may look small," said Molly Douglass, reeve of the County of Newell. "It's pretty exciting for our community." 

Douglass said she hasn't heard much reaction to the project in the community, other than people were surprised by how quickly it was built. Besides providing construction jobs in an emerging industry, she sees the long-term value of developing more renewable energy projects around Brooks.

"The county has had a lot of linear taxation with oil and gas over the years and it's always good to diversify our income streams. That's something we've talked about for a long time," said Douglass.

The utility company purchasing the power has not been announced.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.