New Brunswick

Details scarce on NB Power plan to begin building solar-powered neighbourhood this year

Utility to spend millions on cluster of 100 solar-powered houses in the Halls Creek area of Moncton

Utility to spend millions on 100 solar-powered houses in Halls Creek area of Moncton

Generation Avenue in Moncton was part of the original Halls Creek Village development that went bankrupt in 2014. Homes in the area sell for up to $400,000, but it is not clear where NB Power's Halls Creek development will go or what the price of homes will be. (Pierre Fournier/CBC)

A multimillion-dollar plan to build a cluster of 100 solar-powered houses in the Halls Creek area of Moncton's Vision Lands — organized and partially paid for by NB Power — is scheduled to begin construction this year, although the exact location is unclear, no public announcements have been made and other details about the project are still vague.

"We are aware it is a potential project in Moncton which would be very exciting, but we don't have any other official details yet," said Elaine Aucoin, Moncton's director for environmental planning and development.

"We haven't had a building permit application yet, so we don't have the specifics." 

Little has been said publicly about the housing development, but NB Power revealed some particulars at its recently concluded rate hearing in Saint John.

Elaine Aucoin, Moncton's director for environmental planning and development, says the city has heard a technologically advanced housing development is coming from NB Power but no application has been received yet. (Shane Magee/CBC)

According to a contract signed between NB Power and Siemens Canada Ltd. last year and entered into evidence at the rate hearing, the development involves the construction of 100 high efficiency "near net zero" houses over three years in a single neighbourhood that would operate as an experimental "micro-grid" the utility can study.

Each house is to be outfitted with solar panels, storage batteries, electric vehicle chargers and various "smart" products, including thermostats, meters and water heaters — largely installed at NB Power's expense.   

The houses are to be run internally by sophisticated "nanogrid controllers" and will also be interconnected with each other using new microgrid technologies and artificial intelligence.

That will allow houses not just to run efficiently on their own but to share each other's generation and power storage capabilities and make the neighbourhood mostly energy self sufficient.  

The group would still be connected to the larger NB Power distribution network but able to supply itself and operate independently if necessary during massive blackout events.

NB Power has budgeted to spend $10.9 million over three years on solar generation, power storage and distribution technology in the neighbourhood, the equivalent of $109,000 per dwelling. Federal funding will offset some of those expenses, but 70 per cent of the money is coming directly from NB Power, which is hoping to use the houses as a living laboratory.

"Customers will experience the insertion of these technologies and will provide feedback on functionality and benefits," according to the contract between NB Power and Siemens.

Lingering questions

Unclear so far is who is building the houses, what they will cost buyers and where in the Halls Creek area, which is close to the University of Moncton, the neighbourhood will be located.

In 2014, an attempt to develop what was called Halls Creek Village — an ecologically friendly 600-unit housing community in the same part of Moncton — went bankrupt after only a few houses were constructed.   

Some of the land from that failed effort remains vacant, but the Ontario company that owns it says it has not been approached about NB Power's project.

The City of Moncton has been pursuing development, known as the Vision Lands, in a northwest section for more than a decade. NB Power's proposal to have 100 "near net zero" houses built in a cluster in the Halls Creek area so it can establish a micro-grid has officials excited. (City of Moncton)

"I am not aware of this development," said Larry Dunn, CEO of HarbourEdge Capital Corporation in an email to CBC News.

A second major landowner in the area, Century II Holdings Ltd., recently submitted a subdivision plan to the city close to Halls Creek, but President Wayne Girvan said it is not connected to the NB Power project, which he too had not heard about.

"It's unrelated, although I'm interested in hearing about it," said Girvan.

Although formal applications have not yet been made to Moncton about the development, NB Power officials told the EUB during the rate hearing that it expects to have the first houses built this year and included $3.1 million in its budget for that purpose.

"The current plan is to have a package with the builder to start with construction in the 2020  construction season," said NB Power's Stephanie Langlais, a financial controller with NB Power's "Energy Smart" group.

"We are currently working on the package with the homebuilder to determine exactly what these houses would look like.

"We expect that the package that we would offer for the homebuilder would be ready for the 2020 construction season, and that folks would be interested in purchasing these homes and have them be built."

'I have my doubts'

Langlais was answering questions from J.D. Irving Ltd. lawyer Christopher Stewart about Hall's Creek and two other community-based projects NB Power is pursuing separately in Shediac and Tobique First Nation.

Those two have much higher levels of federal funding than the Halls Creek development, up to 70 per cent, but Stewart questioned whether the utility is in a financial position to support any of them.

"Perhaps these projects will be of great value to ratepayers of NB Power in the future. Candidly, I have my doubts," said Stewart in his closing argument.

J.D. Irving Ltd. lawyer Christopher Stewart told the EUB last week he wondered if a Moncton housing development sponsored by NB Power would benefit its customers. 'Candidly, I have my doubts,' he said. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

"My real purpose in raising them is in response to what seems to be the utility's position that 'much of our costs are out of our control, we are doing everything we can.' Well, with respect, a walk through those projects and that significant spending says, 'No, no, you are not doing everything you can."   

NB Power spokesperson Marc Belliveau said prices for homes in the new development are not yet set, but, if spending is approved by the EUB, the utility is hoping they will be accessible to multiple income groups

"Our expectation from discussions with our homebuilding partners is that these homes will be priced to make them as affordable to as many folks as possible," Belliveau said in an email.

Single-family homes in Moncton's Halls Creek area are assessed and/or have recently sold for between $250,000 and $400,000, similar to houses in the small "net zero ready" development at Dobson Landing in Riverview.

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