Construction on SunMine, the biggest solar field west of Ontario, was officially started Monday, as part of a $5.3M project to make use of a contaminated mine site in Kimberley, British Columbia.

The field, on a ridge overlooking the Rocky Mountains, is the first commercial solar farm of its kind in Western Canada, the first solar farm on an old mine site and the first big solar field to hook into the BC Hydro grid.

The site, donated by Teck from the former industrial lands for the Sullivan Mine, will hold 4,000 solar cell modules, mounted on 96 solar tracking stands following the sun's movements and generating electricity.

Michel de Spot of Vancouver’s Ecosmart Foundation worked with the City of Kimberley, the B.C. government, Teck and BC Hydro to pioneer the project.

"It's a very exciting day...Kimberley is a very sunny place, the land...is a vast land, it's a former industrial land that has been reclaimed," said de Spot.

"They removed all those industries, but they didn't remove the power lines, so we have plenty of high voltage, high capacity power lines. The principle is, we are going to start generating electricity here and feed the power back to the power line."

SunMine is the first large scale project in Western Canada to use solar trackers, which sense where to capture the best light and generate electricity.

The fact all the high voltage power lines and a substation are in place reduces costs tremendously – and the ridge is high enough that it gets a lot of direct sunlight.

The field will also get solar bounce from snow, the rays bouncing from the ground, adding to the amount of electricity produced. 

'Proving solar energy is viable'

While countries like Germany get up to half their power from the sun at peak times, B.C. has never developed a solar industry, apart from individual solar panels for homes and businesses, due to the abundance of hydroelectricity, coal and natural gas.

SunMine unveiling, kimberley, B.C.

Vancouver's Ecosmart Foundation worked with the City of Kimberley, the B.C. government, Teck and BC Hydro to pioneer the project. (CBC)

B.C. Energy Minister Bill Bennett says the new mine is a way for stakeholders to assess the technology, as the province takes its first steps towards generating solar energy.

"This project is not at all about providing huge amounts of electricity. This project is about proving solar energy is viable," said Bennett.

Bennett says the new mine will also allow stakeholders to investigate ways to keep the costs down, but he believes ultimately, it has the potential to inspire.

"I think when the project is up and running, if it's as successful as it looks like it's going to be — the most successful solar project in the country is what we're hoping — I think it will spur a lot of interest in developing other solar projects around the province."

Although SunMine will be the largest project of its kind in B.C., it will generate only enough power for about 200 homes — or one megawatt — when it begins producing solar power next year.

Jared Donald, former president of the Solar Energy Association of Canada, says the solar farm may seem small, but it's not a token effort.

"When we look at energy or solar globally this is not a project significant in terms of its scale," said Donald. "But there's a lot of aspects about this project that are highly differentiated that will really put it on the map."

After six years of working on the project, de Spot also has high hopes for the site.

"This site has the potential to accommodate at least 200 megawatts and then we would be the largest solar plant in Canada and also, the largest in the world."

Google Map of the SunMine site in Kimberley, B.C.

With files from Bob Keating