Seeing the light: Oilsands, mining companies watch B.C. solar project with intrigue
Renewables become an option for defunct mining sites
This story was originally published June 27, 2017.
After a century of pulling lead and zinc from the Sullivan mine in southeast British Columbia, the energy company Teck recently shut down the operation and began years of restoration work. Some of the land outside the city of Kimberley became a meadow with grass and trees, but it remained tainted after decades of mining activity.
There was no way it could be turned into a housing subdivision or some other development.
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The area would likely have sat empty for decades if not for an initiative by the city to take it over and build a solar field. The project has since caught the attention of the mining industry as an innovative method of re-purposing old mining sites and generating revenue, even if the land is contaminated. As long as there are plenty of sunny days — or, in the case of wind farms, strong winds — a company has an opportunity to recoup some of the expense of cleaning up a mine, which can cost tens of millions of dollars.
Walk around Kimberley's SunMine solar field and you wouldn't know you're hiking above an old mining site. Solar panels fill the landscape, like 96 sunflowers tracking the sun from dawn until dusk. The SunMine produces one megawatt of electricity, enough to power about 200 homes, but there is enough land to expand to 200 megawatts in the future, more than enough to power Kimberley, which has about 7,000 people, and surrounding communities.
Teck donated the land to the city along with $2 million towards the $5.3-million project. Initial costs were high, because of legal fees and other one-time costs, officials say.
Finding new life
The city invested in the project to create jobs and reinforce its environmental values. However, the potential of putting renewable energy facilities on old mining and oilsands sites elsewhere in the country isn't lost on city officials, who operate the solar field.
"I think specifically in Alberta, where there are a number of [otherwise unsuitable] brownfield sites and they don't have the hydroelectric potential that British Columbia has, I could see this taking off," said Scott Sommerville, the city's chief administrator.
"It could be used instead of bringing diesel in to power remote communities. They could shift over and at least supplement their power supply with solar."
The thought of mining companies investing in renewable energy may seem far fetched, but those in the industry say the sector is looking for opportunities that make financial sense.
"Most of our clients are looking for these types of innovative ideas. Now, that doesn't mean they are necessarily looking to move away from their standard business, but they are looking at opportunities to diversify," said Meghan Harris-Ngae with the consulting firm Ernst & Young. She's based in Calgary and works with mining, oil and natural gas companies throughout North America.
"It's in its infancy right now. We have some examples of clients doing this not just in Canada, but globally."
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The business case
Apart from boosting their environmental reputation, renewable energy provides an opportunity for companies to generate revenue from old mining sites, while also reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and generating carbon credits.
"It strikes the balance between environmental and economic benefit," said Harris-Ngae. "There's a huge opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and also offset greenhouse gas emissions both for business, but also within a province."
Making money from land that is otherwise unusable is important because reclaiming land is expensive and companies are under pressure from investors and government regulators to reduce their environmental impact. Cleaning up the Sullivan mine cost Teck more than $70 million.
Government grant programs can help companies reduce the cost of renewable energy projects. The Alberta government invests money from its carbon tax into private-sector innovation, but environment department officials couldn't say whether such projects would qualify.
Kimberley turned a small profit last year on SunMine, even after payments on the $2 million the city borrowed to construct the project.
Growing interest in solar, wind
The mining industry's interest in renewable energy is not confined to generating revenue from a closed mine. Companies often work in remote parts of the country, far away from the electricity grid, so they have to rely on diesel generators for power. Increasingly, wind turbines are used to offset the diesel consumption at mining operations.
"The industry's interest in renewable generation across all phases of the mining lifecycle has picked up in recent years," said Brendan Marshall, vice president of economics and northern affairs with the Mining Association of Canada.
Kimberley's SunMine reflects the unique relationship between the mining and renewable energy industries. The site produces electricity instead of lead and zinc, these days. But many of the materials used to construct the solar project were produced from mines.
While the solar industry promotes itself as clean energy, the sector is becoming increasingly aware of its dependence on the mining industry.
Canadian mines produce 14 of the 19 minerals required by the solar industry, according to a report released by Clean Energy Canada on Tuesday.
"I think most people don't recognize that there is a relationship between solar panel and other clean energy technology and then the metals and minerals that are required for those technologies and the fact that we have to be mining those out of the earth," said Dan Woynillowicz, policy director with Clean Energy Canada, an environmental think tank associated with Simon Fraser University.
The relationship between the mining and renewable energy sectors could grow closer in the next decade, especially as the solar industry expands in Canada.